As a muted telenovela played on a T.V. overhead, Jorge Roldan inched toward the microphone in a basement radio studio in Corona, Queens.
Speaking in Spanish, Roldan, a coordinator at the Laborers’ International Union of North America who is based in Long Island City, reminded his audience, mainly construction workers, that their bosses are obligated to give them respirators when they work on jobs involving airborne contaminants like asbestos.
“New York is an old city – many buildings have asbestos,” he said. “Wash your clothes in two different machines. The asbestos resist everything.”
His advice was standard fare for Sin Fronteras. Since April, the hour-long program has brought together six Latinos weekly to offer advice on a delicate topic for the Latino immigrant community: the exploitation and mistreatment of undocumented laborers.
Translated “Without Frontiers,” the offering is the only public-affairs program of 91.9 Radio Impacto 2, an unlicensed Spanish-language music station founded in 2008 that caters to the Ecuadorian population. Sin Fronteras focuses on worker-safety issues, but also promotes cultural events in the Ecuadorian and Latino community. Its guests have included Queens Assemblyman Francisco Moya and Ecuadorian Consul General Linda Machuca, among other local leaders.
More than 98,000 Ecuadorians live in Queens. Latinos account for over 27 percent of the borough population and are a nearly equal percentage of the construction workers citywide, according to a 2015 report by the New York Committee for Operational Safety & Health, a labor advocacy group. An investigation in 2013 by the non-profit Center for Popular Democracy found that between 2003 to 2011, Latino and/or immigrant workers made up three quarters of fatal falls at construction sites in New York City.
“We don’t want more of our people to die,” said Sin Fronteras’ founder, Rosita Cali, an Ecuadorian immigrant who also co-directs Padres en Acción, an organization in Jackson Heights that offers workplace safety trainings sponsored by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration – known as “OSHA classes.”
“Workers have to protect themselves,” she said. “They have the right to say, ‘no, I’m not going to go on that ladder.’ They have a voice and a vote.”
Juan, a 28-year-old Ecuadorian construction worker, represents the people the program tries to reach. An undocumented immigrant, he said he has been a construction worker since March and makes $17 an hour, nearly one-third more than in his previous job working in a kitchen. But about two months ago, he said, he started feeling sick after working with fiberglass insulation in a building in Brooklyn.
Juan said he asked his construction supervisor for a mask, but was told that there were none available.
“They told us that there weren’t any, that we would have to wait,” said the worker, who asked that his last name not be published. “The day went by, and then the week. How can that be?”
By the end of the week, he said, he had an obstructed sense of smell, body aches and a cough, which his doctor attributed to inhalation of fiberglass.
“When you remove the insulation, the dust rises – even your skin starts to sting,” said Juan.
Christina Fox, the work center coordinator for New Immigrant Community Empowerment, a non-profit based in Jackson Heights, said the Latino laborers she works with often don’t report injuries to their supervisors. She explained that workers might not think their injuries are severe enough or don’t know that they have a right to receive compensation.
Attending a workplace safety class could change this.
“A worker will be able to go to their job, recognize there’s a crack in the retaining wall, stop, and tell their supervisor,” she said. “But low-income workers don’t [always] have the flexibility to leave the job. A lot of workers might enter that risk situation.”
It’s a scenario that Sin Fronteras aims to address. Cali began pushing for more workers’ rights classes several years ago. When she heard in 2013 that the Ecuadorian Consulate was running out of space to host OSHA classes, she offered up the basement of her jewelry store and barbershop in Corona – the same basement where her program is now recorded.
For two months, she said, dozens of immigrants flocked to her shop weekly to learn about their right to report workplace accidents, regardless of legal status.
“When I saw how huge and exaggerated the demand was, I said, ‘this can’t be – we’re going to hold classes in other places,'” recalled Cali.
She created Sin Fronteras to expand the outreach. Like the majority of the hosts on the program, she doesn’t have professional radio experience, but the station’s owners immediately liked the idea of a program that seeks to help the community. The six hosts on Sin Fronteras are all volunteers and include a lawyer who specializes in construction accidents and the founder of Padres en Acción, Ronaldo Bini, who speaks about public-safety measures.
“Because people lack knowledge, they aren’t prepared and lose the chance to build their lives,” said Cali. “We want people to listen to the radio programs and come here and take OSHA classes, scaffold classes for workers’ protection.”
Maria Fernanda Baquerizo, the community relations coordinator at New York’s Ecuadorian Consulate, said that labor abuse is prevalent in the largely undocumented Ecuadorian community in Queens.
“It’s very positive that our community, our immigrants, can listen to important information of where to receive help,” she said. “Because generally the people who are abused at work, the undocumented, think that their employers can abuse them and not pay them wages… Immigrants feel helpless, they feel alone. They don’t know how to move forward.”