'Pay your workers now!'

Residents protest treatment of immigrant workers by Cottages contractor

By JULIA MILLER
On February 2, 2012

Maggie Fogarty stood before a packed room crowded with local activists Wednesday and accused a Durham development project of abusing workers' rights.

"About two weeks ago we became aware of a terrible and cruel injustice being experienced by a group of carpenters, working to build The Cottages of Durham," Fogarty, of the American Friends Service Committee, said.

She and others in the room painted a dire picture: eight immigrant workers toiled 70 to 80 hours a week without pay, they said, at the construction site located on Technology Road in Durham. When the workers complained, according to Fogarty, they were fired and evicted from their Dover housing.

Fogarty said the workers had been hired by a subcontractor working on the project.

An official for Capstone Development Corporation, the Alabama based company that is building The Cottages, said the company was not aware of the situation while he stood in front of the company's Jenkins Court location.

"We understand, in this particular situation there may have been a subcontractor that had hired these workers," John Acken, senior vice president of the Capstone Development Corporation, said. "We are working to investigate exactly what occurred with regard to this instance and we are going to do a full investigation and make sure that everything comes out."

The Cottages of Durham, a $40 million student housing project that labels itself as "resort style" living, is expected to be completed in August.

As of Thursday, the houses stood well on their way to completion with windows and porches complete on many of the 141 units.

A representative on the Durham site neglected to comment on the situation regarding immigrant workers.

The identities of the eight workers and the subcontractor they worked for have not yet been revealed. Their story was told by the community members and activist groups who gathered on Wednesday.

They gathered in front of The Cottage's Jenkins Ct. location and sang songs asking the company to "pay your workers now" and presented Acken with a letter addressing their concern.

The workers claim they are owed tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages for their labor over the last few months. They say the company terminated their unemployment and evicted them from housing, which had been provided by the company, after they asked for full payment of wages.

After bring terminated, the workers were said to have reached out to the Dover Police Department, which detained the immigrant workers and turned them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

According to Dover Police Department Capt. Bill Breault, only three men entered the Dover Police Department to report that they were being victimized and unpaid by an employer in Durham, whom they did not name.

Breault said that it is standard procedure for the police department to notify ICE any time they have contact with someone who they believe is living illegally in the U.S.

The carpenters were held at the station until an ICE agent arrived at the Dover Police Department. At that point, the investigation was turned over to ICE. The three men were detained, but Breault said he wasn't aware of five other men in similar situations.

Breault did not release information about the living conditions of the workers or the subcontractor who has been accused of hiring and exploiting them. He said the situation regarding the uncompensated labor was also part of the ICE investigation.

Several carpenters reached out to local advocate groups such as the American Friends Service Committee, and local community leaders like Larry Brickner-Wood, executive director of the United Campus Ministry, to explain how they felt they had been exploited. They said that The Cottages owed them tens of thousands of dollars for their labor, that they were fired and evicted from their housing after asking for work compensation they had not received since October, and inquiring about allegedly unlawful deductions that had been taken out of their previous paychecks.

"While it is clear to us is that these workers are immigrant workers," Fogarty said, "None of us had any reason to inquire as to their immigration status, primarily because the laws that protect their rights to be paid, the state and federal labor laws, protect them regardless of their immigration status."

The carpenters' attorney, Lawrence Vogelman, was not available for comment on the case, however, Vogelman said in a statement: "We are exploring all legal and administrative avenues open to us, both state and federal. That being said, we are willing to sit-down with Capstone/Cottages and their lawyers and reach a resolution compensating the workers for the work they have done and the damages they have suffered."

Officials from The Cottages did not respond to a request for comment on the situation.

The story drove advocate groups such as the N.H. Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees, the Carpenters Union, United Campus Ministry, members of the Durham Community Church, Dover Friends meeting, and two student-led organizations – CORAJ and the Peace and Justice League – to church on a Wednesday afternoon wearing stickers that read: "Stop Wage Theft at The Cottages of Durham" while carrying vibrant signs that plead "pay your workers now."

They made their way to Jenkins Court holding signs in protest and they sang to the melody of "Go Down Moses" before proceeding in protest, chanting "pay your workers now."

The protesters circled around the office space until the door opened, and Acken, the senior vice president of Capstone Development Corporation who flew up from Alabama, came out to address the crowd.

At that point, the advocates read him a letter detailing the injustice that they understood to have taken place.

"We share the concern," Acken said. "As Capstone Cottage Builders, we are absolutely committed to making sure that all of the workers on our side are treated fairly. We want to make sure that occurs."

His reply did not satisfy the crowd that surrounded Acken.

One member asked, "How quickly will this be resolved, and when will these workers get the funds that are due to them?"

Acked responded, "We are working with the attorney that represents these employees. We have an open dialogue with them, so we are hoping to resolve this as quickly as possible."

To all questions regarding the subcontractors, and workers, he answered by saying, "We're still investigating, but I appreciate the interest the community has taken."

Acken also made it clear that most of the 136 workers who were contracted to work on the project were state residents.

Acken said that the Capstone Development Corporation still expects to finish the project no later than August of this year.

The crowd of about 70 was not satisfied by Acken's responses.

"But when will we know the Cottage workers have been paid? How will we know?"

Acken responded, "It's under investigation."


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