A building collapses in Williamsburg, several workers are hurt and one man dies. (12 Workers Buried Alive: One Dead in Brooklyn Construction Horror.) A few weeks later, five Times Square restaurant employees are overtaken with fumes, and a man dies.
The common thread in both of these tragedies: the victims were low-wage immigrant workers.
"Immigrant status forces people into compromising positions," commented Benjamin Sachs of the Workplace Justice Project, a new area of focus for the community-based group Make The Road By Walking in Bushwick, Brooklyn. "They take jobs that are not safe or work for wages that are illegal: less than minimum wage or over 40 hours a week without overtime pay.
"Immigrants are more vulnerable to exploitation," explained Sachs, "because of the threat, either vague or explicit of INS action. This is a real threat if they are undocumented. But even if they are documented, it is still a threat, because they are often not sure of their status and the consequences of standing up for their rights."
Sachs gave the example of one man who wanted to file for unemployment benefits, but he was reluctant to do so because he was unsure of whether, if he went to the Wage and Labor Board to file a claim, the INS would stop him from bringing his daughters over.
"The language barrier is also significant," said Sachs. And yes, he added, there is a measure of racism on the part of employers and unions.
About twenty-five people have walked into the newly-formed Workplace Justice Project seeking help over the last three months, many of them newcomers to this country,. "Usually people wait until they lose a job before coming to us," said Sachs.
Sachs explained that the bad economic situation often forces immigrants to stay in unfair or unsafe labor situations. According to figures about the Bushwick community, where the majority of residents are immigrants, the average per capita income is $6,687; over 40 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate is 20 percent.
In exchange for legal assistance, the Workplace Justice Project asks participants for an oral job history and to participate in a Workplace Rights Discussion.
One man who walked through the door seeking help was Raul Soria, a 44-year-old man from Peru who has been in the US for six years.
"I arrived here like a lot of people," said Raul, through a translator, "with illusions, plans and projects." In Peru, he studied accounting and had his own business. His plans included finding work and enrolling in business courses. Six years later, after a string of low-paying restaurant jobs with unfair wages, unsafe practices and long hours that left no time for study, Raul is disillusioned.
Because of the language barrier, the only work he was able to get was as a dishwasher. In his first job, and every one that followed, Raul was paid minimum wage and expected to work between 40 and 70 hours a week without overtime pay. He knew he was supposed to get time and a half after 40 hours. He knew the law, but he also knew he had to pay his rent and send money to his wife and son, so he couldn't risk getting fired.
"It is illegal to fire someone for demanding legal wages," said Benjamin Sachs, "but it happens all the time."
Significantly though, as Raul Soria's work history makes clear, not demanding your rights doesn't necessarily ensure job security either.
In July 1995, Raul started working for the Gloucester Restaurant on 50th Street between Park and Madison. His salary was $350 a week for 40 hours, but after five or six months, the owner, Peter Skeadas, started paying him only $150, for the same amount of time. According to Raul, he was made to work with sewage water from the basement up to his ankles, and required to work overtime even while earning less money. If he didn't, he was told, he would be fired.
In June 1998, Raul was hired as a dishwasher at La Boheme on Minetta Lane, by the owner for $270 week and was told his hours would be 5:30 to 11:30, six days a week. In reality, he often worked until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, but he received no overtime pay. He was also asked to do extra work, cleaning the exhaust and appliances with toxic chemicals, a job usually done by a special contractor. Raul left and sought help from the Workplace Justice Project. With their assistance he confronted his former boss and told her "you violated my rights; you owe me money."
According to Benjamin Sachs, "sometimes the employer pays, sometimes they don't. Usually they don't. But it was an incredible experience for Raul to confront her. He was great. And we're going to continue to fight until we get the wages," Sachs promised.
Of course, it's not enough just to enforce minimum wage and overtime. "The real answer to ensure progress is by organizing," said Sachs. "These issues don't just impact immigrants," he said. "Immigrants are more vulnerable and face additional issues. But they have the same rights under the employment laws as all citizens do; even undocumented immigrants have these rights. If an employer could ignore employee laws for immigrant workers, then that would be a huge incentive to hire immigrant workers and exploit them."
Lynda Sounds Off:
ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS SET-UP FOR FAILURE: In June of this year, New York State will require all high school students to pass a Regents Language Arts Exam in order to graduate. These new standards will be particularly hard on English Language Learners
"This year alone, over 6,000 English Language Learners may be kept from graduating because they aren't able to pass a test for which they have not been adequately prepared," said Margie McHugh, Executive Director of the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) in a presentation before the New York State Assembly's Task Force on New Americans, and Subcommittee on Bilingual Education.
NYIC recommendations include additional English Language instruction, certification of ESL teachers, funding for resources like technology and textbooks, increased parent involvement, appropriate testing, and the delay of implementation of the English Language Arts Regents for English Language Learners until the Class of 2004.
"We know these children can succeed if they are given the time and opportunity to do so," said Ms. McHugh.
Over 150,000 students in the City and over 200,000 in the State are English Language Learners. How can we set a standard for excellence for our children without helping them to reach it? Immigrant students as a rule have lower drop-out rates and higher graduation rates than non-immigrants