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‘Deplorable working conditions’ – US government sues B&H

The world’s largest photo retailer, B&H, has been slammed – and sued – by the US Department of Labor for its systematic discrimination against Hispanic employees and female, black and Asian jobseekers.

B&H workers protest about conditions last October.
B&H workers protest about conditions last October.

Specific offences include underpayment and racial segregation, with Hispanic warehouse workers required to use separate and inferior toilet and change room facilities to their white colleagues. There were no facilities at all for women of any race!

After attempting for at least two years to persuade B&H to bring its employment practices into the 21st century, the Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCCP) has brought a lawsuit against the privately-owned retailer.

As a supplier to the US Government – with around $65 million in federal government contracts with the likes of the FBI, B&H is prohibited  from discriminating in employment on the basis of race, color, sex or national origin and is required to take affirmative action to ensure that equal opportunity is provided in all aspects of employment.

‘Federal contractors’ workforces should reflect the diversity of the American people, the people who are ultimately footing the bill for the goods and services that contractors provide to the government,’ said OFCCP’s director Patricia A Shiu. ‘B&H fell far short of this responsibility and created deplorable working conditions for employees at its Brooklyn warehouse. This agency is prepared to use every tool at its disposal to ensure that no federal contractors engage in discrimination against women and people of colour.’

On its website B&H claims to ’employ an incredibly diverse group of people.’  During its compliance review, however, OFCCP found that, from January 2011 to January 2013:
– B&H’s Brooklyn Navy Yard warehouse exclusively hired Hispanic men into its entry-level laborer job group, contributing to the complete exclusion of female employees at the warehouse and the near exclusion of black and Asian employees at the facility.
– B&H promoted and compensated its Hispanic workers at a significantly lower rate than comparable white workers, leading to lower pay, fewer opportunities to advance and a near-total exclusion of Hispanic workers from higher level clerical, managerial and supervisory positions. Hispanic employees were also subjected to racist remarks, degrading comments and harassment at the worksite.

In addition to its findings regarding hiring, compensation and promotion discrimination and harassment, OFCCP found that B&H’s Brooklyn Navy Yard warehouse:
– Failed to keep and preserve required personnel and employment records;
– Relegated Hispanic warehouse workers to separate, unsanitary and often inoperable restrooms;
– Failed to provide designated restroom or changing facilities for females.

B&H was in the news a few months ago for mistreating employees and putting pressure on them not to join a union. At the time, it specifically addressed the change room issue: ‘We can declare outright that B&H does NOT have any segregated bathrooms by race or religion, and anyone working at B&H knows that to be true. Additionally, any similar contentions are not only inaccurate, but bizarre.’ (Nonetheless, this is what the US Department of Labor is alleging.)

The complaint asks the court to enjoin B&H permanently from discriminating against female, black and Asian individuals in hiring, and discriminating against Hispanic individuals in promotions and compensation; and to require B&H to ensure and maintain a working environment free of unlawful harassment, intimidation or coercion.

OFCCP is also seeking complete relief for the affected class including lost wages, interest, front wages, salary adjustments, promotions and all other lost benefits of employment and a reform of discriminatory policies. This is likely to be expensive, as B&H will have to track down past employees who have been ill-treated and offer them compensation, including back pay.

If B&H fails to provide relief as ordered, OFCCP has requested that all its government contracts be cancelled and that it be barred from entering into future federal contracts.

OFCCP filed its complaint after determining that it was unable to secure a voluntary agreement from B&H to take corrective action. The full complaint can be read here.

B&H is a serial offender when it comes to poor treatment of certain groups of workers. The store was sued in 2007 by Hispanic employees who work in the warehouse and were paid less than their co-workers. The company settled without admitting any wrongdoing, paid out US$4.3 million and agreed to regular monitoring by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In 2010 seven women accused the company of paying female employees less than their male counterparts and not allowing them to fill prized sales positions.

B&H is currently offering Australian buyers shipping via DHL at around US$12.

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