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NEW YORK -- Nearly two-dozen Korean grocers accused of violating minimum-wage laws and forcing employees to work 72-hour weeks pledged yesterday to comply with a new and unusual code of conduct devised to improve working conditions in New York City.
The move was a big victory for the grocers' largely Mexican work force, which often receives just $240 a week for working 12 hours a day, six days a week, coming to less
than $3.50 an hour, well under the $5.15 an hour minimum wage set by federal and state law, The New York Times reported.
The code of conduct was brokered by the New York State attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, who announced the code yesterday after a year of intense negotiations with the Korean American Association of Greater New York, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and Casa de Mexico, a group representing Mexican immigrants.
With Koreans owning more than 80 percent of the city's 2,000 convenience stores, Spitzer and the association's leaders said they expected hundreds of stores to sign the code in which they would pledge to pay the minimum wage and time-and-a-half for any overtime above 40 hours in a week. As a result, workers would receive at least $450 for their 72-hour workweeks, almost twice what many now receive.
Under the code, grocers would let investigators from a monitoring firm inspect their workplaces and financial records at least twice a year and would for the first time provide paid sick days and a paid vacation, although just one week, to employees on the job at least one year, the report said. Spitzer said he was confident that at least 300 grocers would sign in the next few months. He warned grocers who do not sign by Dec. 31 that he will bring enforcement actions, seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay for minimum-wage and overtime violations.
"If we can get everyone, moving forward, to abide by the code of conduct, we can raise conditions for workers dramatically," Spitzer said. "The essence of this bargain is we will not pursue you for back wages if you pledge to abide by this code prospectively."
Spitzer said two factors persuaded the Korean American Association and Korean grocers to negotiate a code: tough enforcement actions that he had brought and sharp tensions between the grocers on one side and their Mexican workers and community groups on the other.
Last November, in a move that stunned the city's greengrocers, Mr. Spitzer pressured three prominent grocers to pay $315,000 in back wages for minimum-wage and overtime violations. To encourage consumers to patronize stores that adopt the code, Spitzer's office has designed a colorful insignia that stores can display in their windows.