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Worker's Rights and Immigrant Communities

Chinatown, New York (Marionzetta/Flickr)

Chinatown, New York (Marionzetta/Flickr)

Vishakha Desai, Senior Vice President, Asia Society

Muzaffar Chishti, Immigration Project, Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE)
Alex Hing, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance
Bhairavi Desai, New York Taxi Workers Alliance

Vanessa Lesnie, Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights

Question and Answer Session


Vishakha Desai

Asia Society has a significant role to play in education here in New York in the aftermath of 9-11. I should also say that this particular program is part of our on-going commitment to focusing on social issues both in Asia and in Asian-America and it’s a program called Asian Social Issues Program which is a public education initiative funded by the Ford Foundation as well as a number of other supporters to really look at critical social challenges such as human rights violations, conflict resolution, environmental issues as well as poverty, immigration and other kinds of issues as well as solutions that are being generated both in Asia as well as here.

This particular evening’s event is actually held in conjunction with a very special performance. It’s a performance called The Floating Box: A Story in Chinatown. This is a chamber opera that we commissioned out of the cultural program inside of the institution and the program itself I hope all of you will have a chance to see, if not tonight then another time, the program is going to be here from November 1 to November 3. What this is, is a chamber opera commissioned, designed by a very talented Chinese-American artist, Jason Huang, who for more than three years collected stories of immigrants in Chinatown and on the basis of those immigrants’ stories he created a very powerful and I think a poignant story of a Chinese family, which, in fact, takes some of the ideas from the oral histories that he collected. It’s a story about a Chinese worker who is a restaurant worker now but was, in fact, a famous erhu player. I think the music is totally wonderful, the voices are fabulous, as even New York Times said so yesterday. So, I think that you will have a very special treat for you, if you should decide to see the performance and I hope that you’ll get a chance to see it either tonight or as I said until November 3rd.

On your seats there are a number of different things including the event brochure where we have lots of different programs at the Asia Society ranging from things for Asian social issues on the one hand to in fact a very special program we’re doing directly in relation to the 9-11 and the world that has changed. There’s a program with Imam Faisal on November 27 which is to really look at Islam in the context of other great world religions and a town-hall format where you will have a chance to ask questions as well. So, I hope that you will really come and join us. Enjoy this new building. There will be a café here, there will be a store, there will be exhibitions to look at and lots and lots of public programs. So we will be in business in earnest starting on November 17th. So, without further ado, let me first of all say, on behalf of Asia Society, thank all of the panelists and also our moderator who’s really going to take over the program from here. So, let me introduce Miss Vanessa Lesnie, who is the program coordinator for the Worker Rights Program at the Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights and she will be moderating this evening’s session and introduce the speakers. Vanessa, thank you very much. 

Vanessa Lesnie

Thank you and I’m honored to be here and I hope we’re going to have a very interesting evening. As it was been mentioned, I’m the program coordinator for the Worker Rights Program at the Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights and much of the work that I do actually focuses on sweat shop conditions in countries other than the Unites States and in particular, in South East Asia. It’s very easy to forget I think, once when you become part of this globalization debate that a lot of the sweatshop the so-called sweatshop conditions in factories in China, Bangladesh and India, Indonesia, Vietnam actually also exist in Chinatown and the garment district in New York. Even more interesting is that the people who are working for those sweatshops in Chinatown and the garment district are often Vietnamese, Bangladeshis, Indians, Indonesians and Cambodians and the same people. So, the issues are the same. If you want a sort of definition of globalization, it’s that the issues are the same, whether you are in the Unites States or in Vietnam. And some of those issues include the failure to pay minimum wages, forced and excessive overtime, failure to uphold health and safety standards. The immigrant communities, whether it’s immigrants into the United States, or into any other sweatshops, there’s often issues of debt bondage for the workers so we’re trying to improve their lives. A phenomenon that happens in the United States as in other countries, is that employers, somewhat unscrupulous employers, withhold passports for illegal immigrants, so that they are effectively held as slaves in the sweatshops. So that the sorts of issues which we’ll hear a lot more about today, I think, from the people who actually have much closer contact than I ever have, with the workplaces themselves are common around the world.

And the sort of risks that face, Asian workers in the Unites States, I suspect, have been heightened in the wake of September 11. They shouldn’t be heightened, it shouldn’t be any different. But this sort of racist attacks that we’ve seen as a result of this racial profiling who a terrorist is in this country, I suspect has made the situation even worse for Asian immigrants working in sweatshops, working in factories or in kitchens, or wherever they are in the United States. Similarly, the economic recession, which we can argue whether or not it’s because of September 11, but it’s certainly been heightened by September 11, clearly affects immigrant workers to a higher degree, often their jobs are more tenuous and therefore they’re the first victims of the recession.

So, I’d like to introduce the three speakers that we have tonight who can tell us much more these issues and we’ll be answering questions at the end. Our first speaker is to my right is Muzaffar Chishti who’s a lawyer and a director of the Immigration Project of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees, more commonly known as UNITE. He’s also a member and former chair of the board of directors of the National Immigration Forum and has testified numerous times on immigration and refugee issues before congressional committees. On my immediate left is Bhairavi Desai, who’s the founding member of the Taxi Workers Alliance in New York. She works to raise the awareness and improve conditions of taxi drivers. She was born in India and came to the United States with her parents at the age of six and then sort of progressed to get a degree in Women’s Studies at Rutgers University and since dedicated her life to changing the discriminatory practices of migrant workers. And then to my far left is Alex Hing, who’s a cook in a New York City hotel. He’s been a member of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union for 35 years and he’s served as a rank-and-file activist both in San Francisco, where he was involved in a movement to democratize the union and in New York City where he serves on the Local six executive board. He’s a founding member of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance which is the first national organization of Asian and Pacific American trade unions. So, without further ado, Muzaffar, would you like to kick off?