Dancers For Hire Exploited, NYT Gets Hard On

Former employees have filed a lawsuit against a club where they used to work as dancers for hire, claiming that they were never paid wages for their work. The women are mostly immigrants, many of them Spanish-speaking only, and they were paid a mere $2 per dance direct from the customers while the club raked in profits from the door fee and drinks. They were forced to pay fees to the club in order to work there and were all around treated like shit. (All emphasis mine.)

In interviews in Spanish, several former dancers said the owners often made them pay a $60 or $70 fine when they missed a day of work. Several complained of having to pay an $11 fee each day just to enter the club and an additional $10 if they arrived a half-hour late.

They said that sometimes, after dancing from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m., they had to attend meetings that lasted until 6 a.m. in which the owners held forth, calling some dancers “puta” (whore) as well as ugly and fat. The dancers’ most serious complaint was that the club never paid them a cent for their 45-hour workweeks.

“I never received anything in wages,” said Patricia Gonzalez, a long-haired, leggy immigrant from the Dominican Republic who quit dancing at the Flamingo last June. “In my three years there I must have paid thousands of dollars in fines. And I paid the daily fee of $11 to enter. What kind of job do you have to pay just to go to work?”

The lawsuit raises an intriguing question of law: whether the for-hire dancers were employees, who should have been paid wages for every hour they worked, or independent contractors who, as the Flamingo’s owners assert, were merely renting space on the dance floor.

The owners say they had no obligation to pay wages, asserting that the dancers were entrepreneurs who made a living by keeping the $2 they earned for each dance.

“They’re paying to rent the space so they can make a living,” said Peter Rubin, a lawyer for the club. “They can keep all the money they make dancing. They don’t have to split anything with the house.” The club makes its money by charging the men $5 to enter and $7 a drink.

[. . .]

If the dancers win their lawsuit, it could have ripple effects at the city’s many for-hire dance clubs, latter-day versions of Depression-era joints where men paid 10 cents for a dance. Many of today’s dancers, like their customers, are illegal immigrants who earn their money off the books. Amy Carroll, a lawyer for Make the Road, said it was ridiculous for the Flamingo to suggest that the dancers were independent contractors.

“It seems that Flamingo is doing the worst of both worlds,” she said. “They’re not paying the workers anything, and they’re controlling every aspect of the dancers’ work life. They tell them what days to work, what time to show up, what outfits to wear, what makeup to use. They even make the dancers sign in and out to go to the restroom. That level of control makes them employees, not independent contractors.”

I find all of this to be utterly disgusting, and I’m absolutely thrilled that the workers are organizing and demanding what they deserve. I don’t believe for a single second that the women were “independent contractors”; they were marginalized, working-class women of color immigrants, many of whom did not speak English, and therefore management simply believed that they could get away with this kind of mistreatment. The disparity between the value of the women’s labor and the price of drinks is mind boggling. That the club is now trying to claim fair play and no responsibility to pay wages is even more so. It’s exploitation plain and simple, and even worse than that, it seems to have been outright abuse.

The lawsuit is alleging wage violations on behalf of more than 2,000 dancers, waiters and bartenders who the lawyers say worked at Flamingo over the past three years.

The plaintiffs also accuse Mr. Ruiz, the co-owner, of battery, specifically of shoving some dancers toward men so they would dance with them, and occasionally pouring drinks on the dancers.

“Imagine having to dance until 4 a.m. after someone poured tequila down your clothes,” said Floricelda Alonzo, a tall, dark-haired dancer from the Dominican Republic.

Mr. Rubin denied that Mr. Ruiz had hit anyone or thrown liquor on any dancers. He said it made sense to require the dancers to sign in and out when they went to the bathroom and to time them there so they would not use the bathrooms for illicit sex with customers.

Diana Trejos, an intense, talkative dancer from Colombia, said she in no way felt like an independent contractor in her several years at the club. Among other complaints, she said the women were prohibited from sitting between dances unless customers bought them a drink. On many nights the management announced “women’s liberation time,” requiring the women to do their next four dances free as a way to liven things up, she said.

But you know what I’m not so thrilled about? The way that the NY Times has decided to report this story. This is how they chose to open and frame the article.

Every evening into the wee hours, lonely men slip into the dance clubs scattered under the el along Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens. Inside, these men, most of them Hispanic immigrants, pay $2 for a dance in clubs with alluring names like Casanova and La Romantica.

The busiest is the Flamingo Night Club, where, past the hulking bouncer, 50 for-hire dancers gyrate and two-step until 4 each morning, donning different outfits for Miniskirt Night, Pajama Night and Schoolgirl Night. On Bikini Night every Wednesday, the dance floor is jammed, the men pulling the dancers close, the lights dim, the reggaetón music blasting.

For the men — construction workers, janitors, supermarket stockers — the Flamingo may be an antidote to loneliness, an opportunity to press against soft skin, but for many of the dancers, the club is an out-of-kilter world with bizarre rules. Several former Flamingo dancers plan to file a federal lawsuit against the club on Thursday, asserting that it repeatedly violated federal and state wage laws and cheated its dancers of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What we’ve got here is a story about women’s issues, labor issues, immigrant rights, a working-class community not generally considered to be a part of the Times reader demographic, and to top it all off, the business in question is one that might be considered a part of the sex industry. Of course they couldn’t manage to report on it without setting up the scene of some seedy underground world filled with alluring and submissive foreign women. How could they possibly report on a story about the violated labor rights of immigrant women of color who were working as private dancers without first attempting to titillate the audience? Also, instead of abuse, theft, unpaid wages, exploitation and restriction of personal movement, the dancers experienced “an out-of-kilter world with bizarre rules.”

Seriously, what the fuck is up with the Times lately? There’s the way that they handled the Eliot Spitzer case, including exposing the true identity of “Kristen,” the sex worker he was patronizing when caught with his pants down (no, not linking). There have been increasing complaints lately about how their reporting has portrayed people of color. There has been a longtime issue with their handling of women’s issues in general, including relegating legitimate news stories about women to the ‘Style’ section of the paper. And then there’s their roster of columnists who seem to get paid per offensive remark, topped off with the recent hiring of Bill Kristol. I can’t be the only one noticing a trend and calling bullshit, can I?

The exploitation of immigrant workers, legal and undocumented, is a hugely important one. The sexual exploitation of female immigrant workers is another, and neither is covered by our media nearly enough. Here, there is the added bonus of an uplifting story: labor is organizing and power is being taken back. Two thousand employees are being represented in this lawsuit. I’m glad that someone is reporting on it, but giving attention to the story while not taking it seriously and giving its subjects some basic respect isn’t good enough. Not even close.

0 thoughts on “Dancers For Hire Exploited, NYT Gets Hard On

  1. Moody

    Nice timing. 🙂

    Great blog, the NYT have been disappointing a lot lately.

    I really hope that the “independent contractors” defense doesn’t work. It’s obvious BS, but most people are quick to find an excuse to blame the victim.

    Reply
  2. laura

    I don’t have much hope, because I know that defense has worked in other situations. Now, I know its not the same situation at all, but Mary Kay is able to get away with a lot of questionable stuff because they consider the sellers to be independant contractors. They’ve fired people who had to take medical leave or went off to war because they hadn’t sold the required amount stuff to maintain their position. Granted, its explicitly stated in the contract, but we’re not exactly dealing with the same demographics, here.

    Reply
  3. Barry

    Thank you Cara!

    I knew there was something wrong with the NYT story put couldn’t put my finger on it.

    It lacked any spark or spirit.

    Reply

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