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A group of mostly Mexican workers charged Tuesday that the operators of a bargain retail chain treated them “like animals,” locking them in unopened stores overnight and failing to pay them fair wages and overtime despite shifts that spanned 72 consecutive hours. The chain, which operates about 40 stores in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York under various names, had no immediate response to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Newark, N.J. “These workers are setting an important precedent for all immigrant workers in New Jersey by coming forward to denounce the abuses they faced,” said Denis Johnston, director of the immigrant rights program of the American Friends Service Committee in Newark. “Their struggle is not merely for monetary compensation but rather to assert their fundamental human right to be treated with dignity and justice,” Johnston said. The lawsuit claims that the three corporate entities at the heart of the chain, and three principals in those companies, subjected possibly hundreds of workers to “inhumane” working conditions. It accuses them of violating state and federal laws regarding wages, retaliation and discrimination. Charged are New Jersey companies Universal Distribution Center of North Bergen; Dollar Strength of Hackensack; Dollar Star of Elizabeth; and company officers Kishor Thakkar, Mahommed Yousuf and Mohammed Arif. Thakkar referred a reporter’s questions to Arif, who did not immediately return messages seeking comment. Many of the workers began working for the chain in 1994, helping to build and stock new stores, and working in its warehouses and retail outlets, the lawsuit said. The workers, some of whom said they lacked proper documents to be employed, said the chain liked to recruit illegal aliens, believing they would be more susceptible to threats of being reported to immigration officials. Although promised salaries of $5-9 an hour, workers got a far lower rate, and no overtime, generally getting $230 for a seven-day workweek of about 12 hours a day — or $2.74 an hour, about half the state minimum wage, the lawsuit said. In preparing for openings, workers “were often forced to work in stores without heat, access to meals or adequate water, proper ventilation, adequate bathroom facilities and without necessary health and safety precautions,” the lawsuit said. In at least two instances, workers were locked into unopened stores and slept on cardboard mats while covering themselves with newspapers, it said. Bosses called workers “racist and derogatory names, often referring to them as ‘animals’ and ‘donkeys for work’, ” the lawsuit said. None of the eight workers named in the lawsuit still works for the chain. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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