Saima Khan, 53, hated having to constantly pester her boss to pay her. Khan, who is a mother of two grown children and is undocumented (as are her kids and husband) used to work in a variety store in Queens which was owned by a fellow Bangladeshi. She used to work from 6 am till nighttime everyday, selling candy, phone cards and other goods. Yet she says that her boss kept coming up with excuses not to pay her. “He would tell me he would pay me later, that I shouldn’t worry and that the money would come,” she says. But often times it never did.
Khan’s story is unfortunately all too common among immigrants who live here but are not permitted to work due to their immigration status. Immigrant rights advocates report that employers regularly take advantage of their vulnerable situation and pay them less than minimum wage, no overtime pay, or worse, no wages at all.
South Asian immigrants, people who hail from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka make up many of the undocumented immigrants in New York City. In addition to having to accept such low wages, many say that they receive little to no benefits and suffer under harsh working conditions.
South Asians are spread all over the city but the majority reside in Queens, numbering over half a million. Though Asians are perceived to be the most successful minority in the United States, many Asians struggle significantly due to their immigration status, making it difficult to raise their families and pay their bills. According to the South Asian Youth Action (SAYA), over one quarter of South Asian youth in New York City live in poor households. South Asian youth are also more likely to be poor than the average youth in Queens and Brooklyn.
A report published by Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), (“Desi” is a term used to describe anyone from the Indian subcontinent) chronicles the experiences of undocumented South Asian workers in New York City with a focus on a particular section of Jackson Heights, Queens that’s often referred to as “Little India” for the prevalence of South Asian businesses that exist there. DRUM’s headquarters are located on Roosevelt Avenue and 72nd Street in Jackson Heights, steps away from the heartland of numerous South Asian restaurants, clothing shops, jewelry and a host of other businesses.
Though referred to as “Little India,” many of the stores are owned by Bangladeshis and many of the employees are either undocumented immigrants or are here legally but prohibited from working.
‘Feel like a slave’
In neighborhoods where large numbers of immigrants live and work, worker mistreatment is not unheard of. Just like the New York Times famously revealed rampant worker exploitation within the East Asian communities in the nail salon industry in New York City, workers are also routinely exploited in this South Asian community across various industries.
DRUM’s report revealed that more than half of all retail workers whom they surveyed make less than the minimum wage. Workers, many of whom are women with children and are sole providers, are often paid a flat rate regardless of how many hours they work in a given day. Seventy-nine percent of retail workers they surveyed who work nine or more hours a day do not receive overtime pay.
“I felt like a slave,” says Mohammed*, 30, who did not wish to reveal his name due to fear of reprisal from the community. Mohammed used to work in a grocery store owned by a fellow Bangladeshi and was paid $375 for working 12 hours a day for five days, averaging to $6.25 an hour, far less than the federal minimum wage of $8.75 an hour (soon to become $9.00 on December 31st, 2015). His tasks included unloading boxes, counting inventory, washing produce and working the cash registers—without a single break and with no designated lunch break. And this was only after working for one week straight with no pay under the guise of “training.”
When Mohammed first arrived in Queens from his native Bangladesh, he was desperate to find a job to support himself and pay for his college tuition. His young daughter and wife were coming to join him in a matter months too. Since he was here on a student visa, his employment options were extremely limited. He was happy that someone was willing to hire him but his joy quickly turned into misery. Though he needed the money badly, he could not bear the poor pay and working conditions for long. He quit after just two weeks. “Working odd jobs in Jackson Heights is a nightmare,” he says looking back.
Mohammed says that his employer operated his business with a sense of impunity, telling Mohammed once that he was actually doing him a favor for hiring him.
Wages are only part of the problem
Kazi Fauzia, a Community and Worker Organizer with DRUM makes a living helping exploited workers. She fully understands the hardships of being undocumented and trying to make a living by working in Jackson Heights: She used to do it herself.
Fauzia, who came here from Bangladesh, says that she was employed at three sari shops in Jackson Heights all owned by the same man in 2008. She was paid $45 for working a 10-hour day and had to travel between all three shops every day.
Low wages are just part of the problem for these workers. Difficult working conditions often come part and parcel with low-wage jobs in Jackson Heights. Fauzia says that retail workers often have to stand long hours with no break to eat or even use the restroom.
Mohammed and his fellow colleagues at the Bangladeshi grocery were required to stand at all times and were accused of laziness if they were ever caught sitting, their actions being monitored via video camera at all times. “If I sat down for a moment, I would get a call anytime from the owner scolding me to get up,” he says. According to the DRUM report, 41 percent of retail workers surveyed were not allowed to take breaks on the job.
Workers’ safety is not guaranteed either. Fauzia says that she was once hit by a car while on the job and suffered injuries but her employer refused to call 911. The reason? He was afraid of the authorities finding out that he had hired an undocumented person. Fauzia had no choice but to find a way to the hospital on her own.
If retail workers have it bad, restaurant workers in Jackson Heights have it even worse, according to Fauzia. Based on DRUM’s research and her own interactions with restaurant workers, she believes that the restaurant industry is the most notorious for labor violations. DRUM’s report revealed that the median wage for restaurant workers in the area was $5 an hour including tips if they got any. A former employee of a restaurant on 37th Avenue says that he would tell customers not to give him any tips because he was not entitled to any of it. New York state is expected to increase wages for tipped workers from approximately $5.00 to $7.50 an hour on December 31st, 2015.
“Restaurants have a reputation for often paying their lowest level employees very low wages,” says Apurva Mehrotra, a Policy Analyst at the Community Service Society who authored the policy brief “New York’s Tipped Workers are Overdue for a Raise.” “South Asians can be taken advantage of due to their immigration status. They cannot afford to lose their jobs.”
Advised not to report problems
Maf Misbah Uddin, who heads the The Alliance of South Asian American Labor (ASAAL) was not surprised to hear about DRUM’s findings. He claims that his organization is in talks with 39 South Asian business owners for the purpose of encouraging them to follow labor laws and treat workers fairly. Uddin thinks that it is imprudent to report any business to the Department of Labor for wrongdoing. “We want to educate these business owners,” he says. “If we start to complain to the Labor Department, people will get fired and lose their livelihoods,” he says.
“When a small business owner sees the labor department is after them about breaking the law, in most cases, to avoid this problem, they will fire the older workers who they suspect of complaining,” he says. He thinks that owners often suspect a more senior employee of complaining because these workers may come to learn about the law and discover that they are being exploited as opposed to a new worker who may not know the law as of yet.
“I see new faces all the time there,” he says of South Asian businesses. “Turn-over is quick for workers in small businesses. Owners do not want the workers to know they are getting cheated.”
He acknowledges that progress is very slow on improving workers’ rights in Jackson Heights but still insists that reporting labor violations is not the way to go. “We are not here to sue businesses,” he says. “We are here to educate them – to let them know that they are in America, not back home in South Asia, and that they need to follow the rules of this country.”
No one was available from the Jackson Heights Bangladeshi Business Association to comment as the organization currently has no standing members and is due to elect members in the coming month.
‘Barely making it’
Chaumtoli Huq, a labor rights attorney and adjunct professor at Brooklyn Law School doesn’t want workers to be afraid. “My general advice to workers is to come forward and file claims for wage theft – even after you have left a job,” she says. “If you work, you are entitled to wages, irrespective of immigration status,” she says. She warns workers though, that any person who reports wage theft but is undocumented technically runs the risk of the authorities discovering their immigration status. “There is always going to be a potential risk for an undocumented person,” she says. “But in my representation of workers, I have not had an undocumented worker deported for filing a wage claim.”
Indeed, through the help of DRUM, Fauzia was linked with an attorney who helped her win a case against her former employer at the sari shop and was awarded a sum of money.
Saima Khan also won $5,000 in a case against a former employer for back wages.
“Newer immigrants may not be aware of their rights,” says Huq. “There are lots of community pressures to not complain,” she says, adding that employers commonly threaten workers that they will get deported if they report wage theft. “The Department of Labor does not ask for immigration status for wage claims,” she says. She encourages workers to document everything: what days they worked, how many hours they worked and the names and addresses of their employers. “When you try to prove wages, the more information you have the better.”
Immigrants flock to New York City because it is known as the city of boundless opportunity, a place where dreams become reality and where, through hard work, individuals can prosper. But in this city are also hundreds of thousands of people who are working hard just to feed their families.
Khan volunteers with DRUM when she has time, trying to convince workers to join DRUM and learn about the law. In between jobs today, Khan says she cannot afford to send her children to college. Her kids now work in Dunkin Donuts to help support the family and her husband works in a candy store in Manhattan. They can barely afford to pay the $900 rent for their basement apartment in Queens. Her family has no savings. “We’re just barely making it,” she says. “Its a really awful situation for us.”