A small number of supporters turned out for the rally, including customers, employees and another LukOil gas station owner, at the station which was blanketed in handmade signs with messages such as "LukOil punished us for speaking out," and "Getty LukOil - Sweatshops of America."
The gas station owners, Inderjeet and Sotinder Parmar of New Hyde Park, say LukOil is driving them out of business by raising their rent while lowering their commission on gas sales.
The Parmars bought the gas station in 1998 when it was a Getty station. In November 2000 Russian oil company LukOil purchased Getty and the Parmar's station became a LukOil station.
"I used to get 8.5 cent per gallon as commission and I paid $2,300 a month rent," Inderjeet said. "Now, since LukOil took over, they cut my commission down to 6.5 cents a gallon and raised my rent to $7,500. It left me with nothing. They're just driving me right out of here."
As a result of the dwindling profits, the Parmars are now in arrears to LukOil for more than $32,000 in back rent and utility costs.
LukOil is suing the couple for the outstanding amount. The case goes to trial in Queens civil court Jan. 8.
The Parmars have been outspoken critics of LukOil. Saturday's rally was the latest of the couple's efforts to generate attention to their situation.
Last fall, LukOil sued the couple for posting anti-LukOil signs at the gas station. That case was settled out of court in December when the Parmars agreed to remove the signs from the property.
Inderjeet said he does not know why LukOil cut his revenues and raised his expenditures. But as a result of the changes LukOil imposed, the Parmars cannot afford to purchase gas from the company to fill their pumps. The rows of pumps were wrapped in caution tape during the rally.
"The pumps are empty. The only thing left for us to sell is the beer and soda and snacks," Inderjeet said.
And the Parmars are not alone. Dozens of other Getty/LukOil station operators are facing similar situations, Inderjeet said.
Inderjeet brought some of them together and formed the Getty Gas Station Owners Association, a group he hopes can rally some attention to their situation.
"The same thing has happened to me," said Darshan Khakh, who owns a LukOil station in New Jersey. "When I complained, I was told by Getty to get the hell out of the company and shut my station down."
LukOil and Getty representatives said they would not comment on the matter while negotiations and litigation is ongoing.
A.R. Charnes, vice president of marketing for Getty Petroleum Marketing Inc., told the TimesLedger in July he was aware of some of the franchisees' concerns.
"We're having an ongoing dialogue with the dealers on these points," he said, adding that he preferred not to debate the issues through the press.
Khakh said he has spoken to dozens of other LukOil gas station owners who have been put in the same dilemma, but many of them are reluctant to speak out.
"A lot of the owners who at first were speaking out with us are now backing up," Khakh said. "They're scared."
When asked what there was to be afraid of, Parmar and Khakh pointed outside.
"See that car? See that guy filming us?" Inderjeet said. "They've been coming here and filming us everyday. I don't know why."
During the rally, a dark-colored Buick sedan lurked back and forth along the street in front of the LukOil station while one of the men inside the car kept a video camera trained on the gas station.
Inderjeet said he was not sure who the men were but said he suspects the surveillance is a result of his outspoken complaints about LukOil.
Sotinder said she is frequently followed by the same men when she leaves her home.
"We went to the police about it," Sotinder said. "They said there is nothing they can do about it. So I told them, if something happens to me or my husband, they should look to those guys."
But the Parmars said the surveillance is the least of their worries and standing in the parking lot of the gas station Saturday as the sedan idled across the street, the couple seemed to have grown accustomed to the constant surveillance.
"This is what you get with LukOil," Inderjeet said. "Spies."
More pressing are the legal problems they are facing and the fact that their gas pumps are empty while they have bills to pay and children to care for.
They said they are reluctant to close down the station and start over again elsewhere.
"I won't do that because I still have $20,000 worth of (goods) to sell here," Inderjeet said. "I have to try to make what I can with that."
"Besides," added Sotinder, "what about the years of work we've put in here? We can't just walk away."
Reach reporter Tom Nicholson by e-mail at news@times
©2004 Community News Group
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