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11/12/2000 - Sunday - Page A 29

Laborers Protest Disputed Back Wages

by Valerie Burgher Staff Writer

They stomped, chanted and blew up a 15-foot-tall inflatable rat, but they did not get paid.

Day laborers and immigrant advocates demonstrated yesterday morning in front of the Ronkonkoma home of a contractor in the hopes of recouping $3,600 they claim he owes nine workers in back wages.

But contractor Kevin Dutton, who runs the Wildflower Landscaping Design and Construction firm, left his house and drove off soon after the rally began without answering questions about the allegations.

Thirty-five protesters, including volunteers from the Hempstead-based immigrant advocacy group The Workplace Project, and four landscaping workers marched in a circle a few feet from Dutton's driveway for about an hour and a half.

They carried signs with Dutton's name alongside the message "no payment is illegal" and shouted "No slave labor" to make an example of his alleged business practices.

"We have already complained...He needs to recognize us and pay us," said Cesar Calva, of Farmingville, who did landscaping work for Wildflower. "This is practically robbery." Calva, 40, and a native of Hidalgo, Mexico, said he is owed $800.

The Workplace Project has fielded complaints from Wildflower laborers about non-payment or underpayment for over a year, the organization's attorney Saru Jayaraman said.

Since June the group has staged regular protests at Dutton's home and the home of his partner demanding payment.

One of Dutton's neighbors, Michael Cantino said he sympathized with the protesting workers. "This goes on every Sunday and I feel for them." Another Farmingville local, however, said the larger problem is that some of the workers are undocumented immigrants. David Drew, a retired technology worker, complained that the money the laborers were demanding would not be taxed, because the workers are not documented citizens.

"The illegal aliens are wrong and contractors are wrong for hiring them," said Drew, 49, a member of the Sachem Quality of Life Committee, which has called for stronger Immigration and Naturalization Service enforcement in the area.

But Alex Karam, who helped organize the workers' demonstration, said yesterday's protest was about non-payment of workers. "They're in a bad situation. They aren't paid for one or two days and they don't press it because they feel there's nothing they can do," Karam said.