SEPTEMBER 2002

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Immigrant Workers in New York City

By Larry Tung

William Wang gets up at six o’clock every morning to get ready for his first job at a Chinese restaurant in Queens. At noon, he rushes to his second job as a cook at a Chinese nursing home. He has been a hard worker like this for the past 17 years.

A divorcee from Shanghai, China, Wang, 58, came to New York on a tourist visa and said he has to work two jobs to support himself and his college-age son, who is studying Chinese medicine.

"When I first arrived, I had no paper, no diploma, it was very difficult to find a job," he said. Now a U.S. citizen, he said he still has no health insurance.

Wang is one of the hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers in New York City who are struggling for a better future for themselves and their children. According to a report by the Labor Research Association, more than 47 percent of the working class (non-college educated) in the city is made up by immigrant workers as the city’s foreign-born population grew by 32 percent in the last decade.

Alice Cao, also from Shanghai, China, had better luck when she arrived three years ago because her husband has already obtained legal status for her. Now a cashier at a Chinese bakery in Flushing, she gave birth to her second child last year in New York but sent her newborn baby back to China to live with her parents while her other child lives with her in-laws.

"I am not here to just enjoy myself," Cao said, adding that she misses her children in China very much. "In a few years, I hope I can save some money and bring them here."

Now a U. S. permanent resident, Cao said the language barrier is her biggest problem in getting a desirable job. A former employee of the Shanghai Hilton Hotel, she said her English is still very limited. She only took the Bakery job, which pays under the minimum wage, because it requires little English and the hours are good for her.

"Like many other women, I didn’t complain because I want to keep my job and not cause any trouble," Cao said. She is taking English classes at Long Island Business Institute and hopes to find an office job in the future.

Freddie Velez, a car service dispatcher in Park Slope, Brooklyn, came to New York from Ecuador in 1963 at the age of nine. He said that nowadays you have to be more skilled to be able to get a job because of the increasing competition.

In the past, immigrant workers were mostly from Central and South America, and the Caribbean Islands, Velez said. "But now you see a lot of people coming from Europe, such as Poland and Russia, before you only saw Russians in Brighton Beach."

"But I still think it is the best place to go to and actually survive," Velez said. "With a bit of luck and hardworking ethics, the jobs are still there. If you put your mind to it, you can still make it."

Compatriotism can be a bond between immigrants from the same country, but sometimes it can be used against them. Johnny Wang, a truck driver from Shanghai who joined his wife here seven years ago, said that he stays away from Chinese-owned companies because they take advantage of fellow Chinese workers by underpaying them.

Now a permanent resident and a full-time employee at Century Window Fashion, a Jewish-owned company in Maspeth, Queens, said he gets full benefits and is treated fairly like his other co-workers.

"I still struggle with the English language and my co-workers would correct me all the time," Wang said. "But I still get by and it’s no big deal."

But not everyone has that choice.

Jeffrey Tan, an ethnic Chinese manicurist from Malaysia who overstayed his tourist visa, said he has to stick with Chinese-own companies because they were the only ones who would give him a job.

With no previous experience in manicure, Tan said he got a job in a Chinatown nail salon through a friend, who is also Chinese Malaysian, said he learned how to do manicure in two weeks by observing other manicurists and now makes about $4,000 a month.

"It’s very easy," Tan said. "Anyone can do it as long as you know how to match colors and a little bit of drawing." But he added that he works 11 hours a day and only gets one day off a week.

"Connections are so important," Tan said. "You have to have a lot of friends, regardless of what kinds of friends they are. With friends, you have access to all kinds of channels."

Meanwhile, to Tan, living in New York offers something else that he could not find in his home country–freedom to express his sexual orientation as a gay man.

"I was making good money back home," Tan said. "But Malaysia is a Muslim country and being gay is not widely accepted there. Many of my gay friends eventually get married and have children. People are more liberal here and I can do whatever I want."

Tae Suthapong, a fashion lover in his mid-20s from Thailand, was also attracted by the lifestyle that New York offers. He received an Associate degree two years ago from Parsons School of Design but could not find an employer to sponsor him a work permit during his one-year practical training period.

Reluctant to leave the city so soon, Suthapong bought a student visa from a language school two months ago and now waits tables at a Thai restaurant in East Village, a common practice among foreign students-turned-illegal workers.

"I love New York," Suthapong said. "Everything starts here and it’s a wonderful place to live … It’s a second home to me."

Michael Donovan, Director of Unite Local 169, a union organization, and a labor history professor at Cornell University, said the labor law in the United States is inadequate to protect workers, particularly those who are undocumented. A court decision sought by the National Labor Relations Board in May helped 61 underpaid workers at a New Orleans factory get backwages but it does not apply to undocumented workers.

"In this country, the labor law is so weak and the power of money interest is so strong that they frightens the workers," Donovan said. "Why would not an owner just hire all undocumented workers unless there is a big penalty for them for doing so."

Jeffrey Eichler, Organizing Director of Unite Local 169, said exploitation of documented or undocumented immigrant workers might have impacts on citizens and other legal residents.

"Immigrant worker are the fabrics of New York City’s labor force," Eichler said. "Without protecting them, it would encourage exploitation throughout the economy … If you create a large number of exploited people, it eventually comes to roost."

 

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