Plenty of people knew who Stavros Papantoniadis was.
The brutal owner of Stash’s pizza in Dorchester and other restaurants, arrested on federal forced labor charges on Thursday, openly abused his unfortunate workers for years, according to prosecutors.
The documents released so far make for sickening reading. They claim Papantoniadis purposely hired undocumented immigrants from North Africa, Central America, and Brazil, and threatened to report them to immigration authorities if they refused to work the inhuman hours he demanded of them; or if they asked to be paid for all the time they’d worked, or for time off, or if his surveillance cameras caught them daring to sit during their endless shifts. According to an investigator, he physically abused them, and sexually assaulted one worker, apparently confident they would not report him to the police officers who got discounts at his restaurants, and whom Papantoniadis made clear would always take his side.
The workers subjected to this relentless cruelty didn’t suffer entirely in the shadows. They weren’t locked away in some sweatshop, but bound by their own powerlessness in restaurants visited by many thousands of customers over the years.
Victim 1, a North African man who had overstayed his visa, was repeatedly physically attacked, threatened with murder, and vilified for being a Muslim by Papantoniadis, even as he worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, according to federal prosecutors. Fear of deportation kept this worker at Stash’s for almost 14 years.
At one point, according to his account, the owner entered the kitchen “with 5 or 6 friends …then slapped Victim 1 in the face and broke his glasses.” Nobody seemed inclined to stop his abuser. People saw the attacks, and it made no difference. Of course the workers felt powerless.
Victim 6, a Brazilian man, was continually threatened, called homophobic slurs, and sexually harassed and assaulted by the owner. One time, the owner was at a table with two people and — in front of them — spoke to this victim in a vile, sexually explicit way.
More witnesses, no consequences.
What prosecutors say happened at Stash’s and the owner’s other restaurants is an egregious example of a dynamic that exists in thousands of workplaces across the country.
“We have seen hundreds of cases that incorporate some of these elements over years of doing this work,” said Audrey Richardson, managing attorney of employment law at Greater Boston Legal Services.
There are some 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, each of them vulnerable to the kind of exploitation workers allegedly suffered under Papantoniadis. This population is crucial to our economy, especially now, when we have labor shortages. But they’re often exploited and vilified, used as a cudgel by conservatives eager to blame them for every real and imagined problem.
Without immigration reform, what happened at Stash’s will keep happening.
“We need to fix our laws so these workers can come out of the shadows, so unscrupulous employers don’t have as much of an opportunity to exploit them,” Richardson said.
At this point, that would take divine intervention. But the picture isn’t entirely grim. Papantoniadis got busted, after all. His workers may have believed they had no rights, but they were wrong: Eventually, the Department of Labor went to bat for them, and won them some of the wages they were owed. And federal prosecutors have now arrested their tormentor and charged him with crimes that carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Instead of being deported, these employees are now authorized to live and work here for at least a few years, under federal programs protecting victims of crime and exploitation — protections that were expanded this year by the Biden administration.
The US attorney has urged more victims to come forward. And Richardson said Greater Boston Legal Services is happy to provide confidential help if that seems too daunting. They can also find assistance at worker advocacy centers like Justice at Work and the Brazilian Worker Center.
The rest of us can help too, by recognizing that sometimes, cheap pizza comes at too high a price — and speaking up.
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.