In the main B&H warehouse located in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, the walls and ceilings are insulated with fiberglass that fills the air and flecks off onto the worker’s skin, causing rashes, respiration problems and daily nosebleeds, employees say. Inside a second warehouse, on Evergreen Avenue in Brooklyn, employees say they have worked amid asbestos-insulated tubing. “They would tell us to clean the tubes,” recalled maintenance worker Miguel Angel Muñoz Meneses, “but nobody wanted to touch them.”
The men, many of whom are undocumented, testify of suffering from kidney stones, dizziness and fainting after being denied access to water or bathroom breaks. They say there is often a lack of basic safety equipment. “If we ask for gloves, they answer that they do not have gloves, because gloves are too expensive,” said Isaias Rojas, a B&H employee.
One man reported he was badly cut while lifting boxes, and the managers refused to call an ambulance, instead advising him to simply wait until the bleeding stopped. Another said a manager threw hot water on him and slapped his face. Others report those who complain are fired or threatened with deportation.
“They treat us as if we were animals,” Florencio Salgado said. “We are involved in this because we are tired of being abused.”
For many of the men, the most egregious offense occurred on Sept. 5, 2014, when two tractor trailers parked adjacent to the Navy Yard warehouse burst into flames, sending clouds of black smoke into the shipping and receiving section as the workers were inside.
Silverio Cano Alberto, who has worked for B&H for seven years, said he was on the second floor as the flames licked the outside of the warehouse.
“There was smoke and yelling and no one, including the manager, paid any attention,” he said. “Finally, they told us we could leave, but we each had to pass through the metal detectors, which took about a half hour. When I got outside, the parking lot was filled with firemen and police. Imagine — if the fire had spread, we would never have all made it out.”
Pretty terrible. But with so few options for workers today, it’s hardly surprising. The only way this story came out was because one of the workers’ brothers knew about a worker center nearby, reiterating why these non-union efforts by organized labor and community organizers to reach out to low-wage labor are so important. How often do conditions like this happen for years or decades because there is no union or worker centers to contact? Luckily, these workers are on the way to unionization with the United Steelworkers. How many don’t have that chance?