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Worker abuse common in Mass. businesses

Sarah Betancourt
Worker abuse common in Mass. businesses
Stavros Papantoniadis chats with former Mayor Martin Walsh in 2016. PHOTO: ISABEL LEON, MAYOR’S OFFICE

A day after the owner of a Boston-area pizzeria chain was charged with forced labor and abuse of an immigrant worker in federal court, local advocates say it’s likely there are many more exploited workers in our region who go unidentified.

Audrey Richardson, a managing attorney with the nonprofit Greater Boston Legal Services, said the organization is “familiar with the case.” She frequently sees similar situations of exploited workers too afraid to seek help. She said a lot of undocumented workers feel like they can’t come forward because of threats of deportation and losing their livelihoods

“[These cases] might not rise to the level of being just so violent, and so off the charts for such a long period of time,” Richardson told GBH News. “But the same elements of employers who want to intimidate and threaten workers to take advantage of them and to keep them working and to not pay them what they’re owed are there.”

Stavros Papantoniadis, owner of Stash’s Pizza in Dorchester and Roslindale, was arrested last week on allegations that he physically assaulted undocumented employees, withheld wages, forced workers to work over 80 hours a week for little or no pay and threatened them with deportation. One alleged victim detailed claims of being kicked, choked and assaulted so severely that he had to have all of his teeth removed, according to a federal affidavit. He said Papantoniadis yelled Muslim slurs as he was beaten and threatened his life. The man said he worked there for nearly 14 years, partly in fear of being deported.

Papantoniadis couldn’t be reached for comment. He has yet to enter a plea and is being held pending a detention hearing on Monday. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

Mohammed Missouri, executive director of Jetpac — a Cambridge-based nonprofit seeking to elect American Muslims — says the case also reflects anti-Muslim bigotry that contributes to people not seeking help. The organization refers individuals in the Muslim community who experience workplace harassment to the Council on American-Islamic Relations Massachusetts and other advocacy and civil rights groups for resources.

“If you feel like you’re in a situation that can’t be necessarily helped by you speaking out, you’re not going to speak out,” he said.

This is the first case of forced labor filed by U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins’ office since she took the job last year. Since then, she has created a human trafficking unit focused on sex and labor violations.

Rollins called the allegations “horrific” in a press release on Thursday but said the problem of forced labor is widespread.

“Labor trafficking is real and happening every day in Massachusetts and beyond,’’ she said. “We are working hard to expose this disturbing crime and to hold those that abuse and traffic people accountable.”

The problem of forced labor, often hidden in plain sight, has been the topic of an ongoing investigation by the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting. GBH News reporters have spoken with restaurant and construction workers and domestic cleaners, among others, who have detailed working long hours for little or no pay, who are fearful of deportation, abuse and even homelessness.

Audrey Richardson encouraged workers at Stash’s Pizza and other businesses who think they’re dealing with labor violations to reach out to Greater Boston Legal Services and community worker centers that work with immigrants. She said there have been recent efforts at the federal level to better help victims.

In January, the Department of Homeland Security announced a new process that grants “deferred action” for workers who are witnesses or could potentially be witnesses in a labor dispute being investigated by a government agency. The status allows immigrants to work legally and protects them from deportation.

“It really does allow workers the feeling that they can come forward, that they’re protected, that they will have the ability to come out of the shadows and work lawfully,’’ Richardson said.

It is unclear if any of the alleged victims in this case accessed that new process, but according to the affidavit, Department of Homeland Security agents helped several immigrant workers at Stash’s Pizza acquire immigration benefits, including “continued presence,” which allows them to remain in the U.S. legally under human trafficking laws.

The Department of Homeland Security also signed a supportive document, called certification, that helps one of the victims in their application for a T-visa, which is an option for victims of forced labor and sex trafficking. Certain victims can remain in the U.S. legally for four years if the federal government grants that benefit.

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual reporter for GBH News.

forced labor, rachael rollins, Stash’s Pizza, Stavros Papantoniadis, undocumented workers