Janitors For Kmart, Target, Toil In 'Modern-Day Slavery,' Labor Leader Alleges

janitors labor lawsStory updated on 5/8/2012

Janitors working at Target, Kmart, Best Buy and Walmart are toiling in such abject conditions that the worst instances of the conditions are akin to "modern-day slavery."

That's what Stephen Philion, the director of St. Cloud State's Faculty Research Group on Immigrant Workers in Minneapolis, claimed at a rally Wednesday, organized on behalf of 12 janitors who have filed suit against Diversified Maintenance Services, a Tampa, Fla.-based subcontractor. The rally was scheduled to coincide with the release of a labor rights' organization report documenting what it said was DMS' widespread exploitation of retail cleaning workers, including chronic withholding of overtime pay.

Speaking to the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune, DMS' representation denied the charges.

"We do not agree with those allegations and we have evidence to the contrary," said Diversified's lawyer, Phillip Russell, from the Tampa firm of Ogletree Deakins.

The janitors, who clean the big box retailers in Minnesota, claim DMS refuses to pay overtime wages and threatened to fire janitors who even dared to ask for overtime pay. About 40 people attended the Wednesday rally, held outside a Kmart in Minneapolis, according to the Star Tribune.

In total, DMS has contracts with 600 locations. The company is also Target's biggest janitorial services provider.

"This study sheds light on the reality faced by thousands of retail cleaning workers around the country as well as here in the twin cities," Philion reportedly said at the rally. (Correction: An earlier version of this article claimed that Philion said the paychecks of DMS workers had bounced in their last pay cycle. In fact, Philion said it was workers from the Minneapolis, Minn.-based Paquette Maintenance & Supply Company.)

According to Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (Center for Workers United in Struggle), more than $50,000 has already been recovered in back wages and other unpaid fees through a slew of trials brought in defense of Minneapolis-area janitors over the past few years. (Update: An earlier version of this article said the settlement was with DMS. In fact, DMS has never settled with janitors in a previous lawsuit, as was suggested by news reports at the time). CTUL also notes that over the last decade janitors' salaries have dropped from $10 to $11 to the current total of $7.25. The latest lawsuit of the 12 workers alleges that the janitors put in as many as 50 to 60 hours a week without pay. The workers say that they were also forced to take a "ghost name" to hide their seven-day workweek from the government.

The report catalogs a consistent policy of DMS depending on ignorance on the part of its janitors, most of whom are Latino immigrants, about their rights.

"I held two jobs because of the low wages," said Mario Colloly Torres, a former based supermarket worker who now works with CTUL, according to a story by the politically progressive news site, The Uptake. "We work in a place filled with food and yet we can barely feed our families." (Correction:Colloly Torres was formerly an employee with Carlson Building Maintenance. An earlier version of this story said he was a DMS employee, as was reported in press accounts at the time.)

Regardless, this latest DMS case is in keeping with an industry-wide problem. Carson Building Maintenance, National Floor Maintenance and Paquette Maintenance have all been caught not paying fees to their janitors. And when nine Ukrainians were brought over to the the United States last year by a pair of Ukrainian brothers doing business with Walmart and Target, they were beaten and raped. The brothers, Omelyan and Stephan Botsvynyuk, were convicted in October 2011 on racketeering and extortion charges in Federal court in Philadelphia. They face up to 20 years to life in prison, according to The Associated Press.

Not all janitors have it so bad, however. According to the New York Post, the highest-earning janitor for the school system in New York City, Queens-native Kevin Fitzgerald, made $181,000 in 2010, the last full year for which salaries were released. Base-pay salary for janitors in New York City's schools maxes out at roughly a little more than $106,000, the Post said. The high salaries for New York City school janitors are a result of a contract negotiated by the members of Local 891, which succeeded in getting its janitors favorable overtime pay models.

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