Supporting Immigrant Labor in New York After the Pandemic

Supporting Immigrant Labor in New York After the Pandemic

Laundry Workers Center protestors holding signs seen in front of Whole Foods Market on Huston in support of Alabama Amazon Union during a protest of Liox Cleaners. – New York, NY – March 6, 2021 (Shutterstock)

By Linda N., Special to WWT

According to reports by the American Immigration Council, immigrants are central to the development of New York and contribute significantly to the State’s development. They make up a fourth of the New York State’s population and more of the State’s labor force. In a 2018 report, immigrants make up over 20 percent of the population, more than 4 million, comprising over 2 million women, 2 million men, and less than half a million children. Data findings reveal that immigrants in the State contributed significantly to the taxes; the report shows that in 2018, immigrant-led households paid over $35 and $20 billion in federal, state, and local taxes, respectively.

The Center for Migration Studies New York (2020) also reported that of the State’s immigrants’ workers, over 65 percent work in essential services, and most of the undocumented labor force are crucial workers, contributing over $2 and over $1 billion in federal; State and local taxes. According to the data on immigrant workers’ analysis by the American Immigration Council of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey, most work in healthcare support (49 percent), personal care and service (33 percent), and others. Among the undocumented immigrants, most (74,700) work in restaurants, construction, home health care, or as aids for the elderly (19,800), and others.

Documented organized a panel discussion to discuss labor challenges faced by immigrants in New York, specifically how the pandemic has affected low-wage jobs and essential workers. The panelists, moderated by Amir Khafagy, a freelance journalist covering labor issues, posed various questions addressed by advocates working on issues that affect service workers like home aide professionals, laundry care business, and restaurant workers. The talk covered topics about the exploitation of immigrant workers during the pandemic and how they are fighting back. It started with an overview of the various ongoing campaigns in the different services.

Campaign with the Laundry Workers Center (LWC)

Rosanna Aran, the Co-founder, and Treasurer of the agency shared some insights into how COVID affected workers in a profession with more than three thousand laundromats in New York City, revealing how they discovered maltreated and underpaid workers in the field. She repeated how social factors like systemic discrimination, inequality, and income affected workers in the profession, who are often poor with little to no health care insurance in place. She mentioned that before the pandemic, there were so many issues facing the profession. Still, the conditions worsened and became more evident during the pandemic. There were cases where both employers and customers made things difficult for the workers, such as the non-provision of PPE despite executive orders. The refusal to follow safety protocols, including during the pandemic, thereby exposing the workers to infections.

Further explaining that before COVID, the working condition of workers was disheartening, short-changed, worked long hours, and was living with bad health and poor safety conditions including the ones created by the customers. Members shared experiences that employers don’t value protocols and angry customers did not follow instructions. When the workers become infected and go to their homes to render services, they have no job to return to afterward when they get infected and take time off to care for themselves.

In December 2020, a public campaign was launched against the industry. Workers decided to establish an independent union in response to what they observed during the COVID pandemic. The Laundromat workers organized to get back their stolen wages and decided to form their independent union. The company engaged a consultant to stop the workers from achieving this goal and eventually retaliated by trying to disband the union, so they shut down the laundromat and fired everyone. Yet, the workers have continued to ask the new owners of the organization under the new name for money.

According to Rosanna, “the pandemic was an eye-opener for many workers. For the organization, it created a lot of opportunities. The organization is now fighting for many good things for the workers. We are part of the sweatshop condition and hold legislators to account, ensuring that laws are passed to recoup the stolen wages, not just for the COVID but for all pandemics that might be yet to come.”

Immigrants’ Worker’s Exploitation Among Home Care Workers

Speaking for homecare workers, Yolanda Zhang of the Ain’t I A Woman Campaign and the Flushing Workers Center, an organization founded to unite workers in the locality to fight and demand better work conditions, their trades, ethnicities, immigration status, and backgrounds. The former is a campaign targeting Justice For Home Care Workers. It is a campaign to get the Governor to sign into law a declaration that a 24-hour workday is illegal, especially for the health and well-being of people with illnesses and injuries and the home attendants who care for them.

Using home care services as a case study, she explained that the home care work pre-pandemic was challenging. With a population of over 300,000 workers in the sector, home care workers are assaulted, forced to work 24 hours shifts, and left out of immigrant workers’ welfare. Many are within 45-55 years and often contend with the problem of ageism. They also suffer health problems from the long work shifts. Most claim they have developed insomnia, high blood pressure, and occasional ‘hearing of voices while sleeping,’ and some have regrets. “When you are in a patient’s home, you feel anxious and wonder how many more days will I have to do this … I can’t even see my kids growing up”…

During the pandemic, the problems became more pronounced, starting with the long hours, the 24 hours’ shifts increased and disallowed to travel outside their client’s homes to manage exposure since most of them didn’t have health insurance, they were toiling more and felt trapped. Some of these workers who had no choice but to do the work, contracted COVID, “Many workers after training don’t want a 24-hour work … and they had to deal with the competition within the sector because most agencies will tell them they have the 24 hours shift available, either 24 hours or no job at all,”

According to Yolanda, workers faced the most absurd working condition. Despite the executive order for PPE provision for the workers, most employers didn’t provide these. This fact is why immigrant workers have decided to overturn their fate.” Taking after the works of Leslie Chang, who mobilized co-workers to take action, she made a lot of noise and set precedents. She demanded the end of the 24-hour workday and clamored for a non-sequential 12-hour shift. Yolanda clarified that the campaign is not asking the society to sympathize, “we want to revolutionize long hours of work.” She learned that racism and sexual harassment are not just an attitude; for immigrants, it is expressed in the way workers are pitched against each other in the form of competition, saying that they should be thankful. Pitching the workers against each other. we need to end the competition

Nelson Mar, president of Local 318 Restaurant Workers Union, who also represents workers from the Jing Fong restaurant in Manhattan’s Chinatown, shared some of the experiences and efforts they have taken to protect the interest of restaurant workers. Using the Jing Fong restaurant case, Nelson Mar explained that they are fighting to prevent the closure and displacement of over 70 jobs and sources of livelihood. According to him, … “the workers are fighting for their jobs but also to keep Chinatown’s only restaurant workers union alive.” He explained that the restaurant served as a community center, “This is not simply about a workplace, for many this a social institution in the community.” He also talked about the struggles faced by the unionized workers of the restaurant in trying to get the original landlord of the property not to sell. Talking about the impact of the media in amplifying the issue, Mar explained in an interview with Amir Khafagy that the union’s agitation over Jing Fong is a demand for justice and a labor movement for Chinese American workers. Mar explains. “Through the Jing Fong struggle, we brought national attention to the issue of the sweatshop conditions in the restaurant industry.”

He explained that they need support in achieving their goals. Send an email to join the Save Jing Fong and Save Lower Manhattan by emailing Nelson at .img@.img  and following the SWEAT update on @flushingworkers and Jing Fong on Instagram @youth_against_dispalcement.

Minimum Wage Payment

When asked if the payment of minimum wage would make a difference in the fight for labor equity, Yolanda Zhang explained that it won’t make a lot of differences because home care workers lose payment beyond several hours. “And that’s why we are fighting for a regular time because overtime is not recognized and paid for.” She also explained that the Governor’s policy had not taken any effect because “Cuomo is not on the side of the union workers.” So, people should sign the petition to demand the passage and signing of the SWEAT bill, forcing the end of the 24-hour workday for home attendants in New York State.

Some of the scheduled activities towards pushing the campaign are a protest slated for April 28 @ 11 am ET. Home care workers will be protesting with the hope to recover the loss of multimillion-dollar back wages from overtime, put a stop to 24-hour workday, and raise awareness on undervalued labor! She is also working with other labor organizers to promote the SWEAT Bill, protecting workers against wage theft. A bill that Gov. Cuomo at first vetoed in 2019 has proven to be crucial now with the increase in wage theft during the pandemic.

To get involved, click here.

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