Market Workers Feel Harassed by Anti-Mafia Agency

Ramón Eduardo (right) is the factory owner of the Italian bakery Il Forno in Hunts Point in the Bronx. (Photo by José Acosta via El Diario-La Prensa)

Ramón Eduardo (right), owner of the Italian bakery Il Forno in Hunts Point in the Bronx, speaks out about the discomfort of his employees in fill out the Business Integrity Commission’s questionnaire. (Photo by José Acosta via El Diario-La Prensa)

The workers of food markets in the Hunts Point area in the Bronx are used to getting up at the break of dawn and enduring hard conditions. But now, many laborers consider that the city has gone too far by requiring them to fill an 11-page questionnaire which they say is too personal and invades their privacy.

The Business Integrity Commission (BIC), dedicated to eradicating the influence of the mob in the New Fulton Street Fish Market area, is requesting information such as names and addresses of ex-spouses, a list of every single place where the worker has lived in the last decade, where they spent their vacations and in which hotel, and an account of every criminal offense or testimony offered in a civil or criminal investigation.

“My employees filled it out, but there are many in this area who have refused to do so because they feel uncomfortable with these very personal questions,” said Ramón Eduardo, the owner of the Italian bakery Il Forno.

Eduardo, 60, said that he had to pay the BIC a total of $7,000 to register his business and obtain photo IDs for each of his 47 employees, all of whom are Hispanic.

“They told me that the application is only for registry purposes, but the questions they were asking meddled too much in one’s personal life. I didn’t think that was fair,” said Rubén Balza, 51, head cook at Il Forno, who has worked there for six years.

A worker who declines to file the questionnaire or fails to carry the picture identification can face steep fines.

The Commission, which regulates the wholesale of meat, fish and other products in Hunts Point, has increased its oversight of businesses located in private lots near the markets. Since 2009, the agency has registered 54 companies in the area and collected information about its employees to perform background checks and create identification cards.

Many companies have stated that the requirements are an unnecessary burden, and over three dozen of them complained about the Commission two weeks ago at a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Hunts Point, which represents over 700 local businesses.

Josephine Infante, president of the chamber, said that the BIC is applying rules dating back to 1990, when organized crime was a real problem in the markets. She said that they “need to be updated.”

“These old methods do not reflect what goes on today at the Hunts Point markets. The people most affected are minority employees  – black and Latino –  who get up early, earn very little, and work hard to ensure these products arrive fresh to retailers and homes all over New York,” she said.

The LatinoJustice PRLDEF, representing some 40 workers and employers at the Hunts Point Produce Market, is asking the BIC to do its job without invading the privacy of the employees.

The BIC “must review the procedure and remove any inappropriate questions included in the application,” said Foster Maer, lead attorney at LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

“Workers with over 15 years of experience in wholesale, overwhelmed and intimidated by the kind of questions formulated in the questionnaire are simply refusing to fill it out, and I can’t blame them,” Maer said. “The BIC is not legally authorized to ask these personal questions unless it has a specific reason to suspect that an employee has a bad record.”

The Commission charges companies $4,000 to register for three years, plus an additional $100 per employee for their ID cards.

Shari C. Hyman, commissioner for the BIC, told the media that the agency’s requirements are aimed at ensuring a safe, fair and competitive entrepreneurial climate among the Hunts Point businesses.

In the last two years, the agency has closed down three businesses near the Hunts Point Produce Market which had ties to the Mafia through the Genovese family. Four other enterprises were shut down after their owners were charged with embezzlement.

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