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Worker's Rights and Immigrant Communities

Chinatown, New York (Marionzetta/Flickr)

Chinatown, New York (Marionzetta/Flickr)

Vanessa Lesnie

Thank you very much. I think that set a really great context and perhaps Bhairavi, you can talk sort of a bit more specifically about taxi workers and any other issues you like to address. 

Bhairavi Desai

I’d like to thank all members of the Asia Society for inviting myself as a representative of the Taxi Worker Alliance, and I think it’s a really great gesture that you’re opening, that at the opening you’re having a program on workers’ rights in the immigrant communities because I think that within our communities labor rights, women’s right, the rights of the marginalized and oppressed people within our communities, really need to be centralized in our discussions and within our work. So I work with the Taxi Workers Alliance and I know Muzaffar gave more of a larger context which I just want to add to a little bit and then speak more specifically about the industry.

As Muzaffar mentioned, I think that both in globalization and, I think, the general kinds of global racism, need to provide a context in which we’re able to talk about immigrant workers’ rights in the U.S. and more specifically within New York City. We call the taxi industry a "sweatshop on wheels" because that’s really what it is. Workers labor more than 12 hours a day, on average about 60 to 80 hours a week. There’s no guaranteed income, there are no health benefits, there’s really no protection. Taxi drivers are ranked, the taxi industry is ranked as the most dangerous job in the country, and in fact, while the statistic of the crime levels in New York City have decreased over the past several years, the number of crimes and especially violent and deadly crimes against taxi drivers have actually increased by over 25% in the past several years. And 75 to 80% of the workforce is either South Asian, either Pakistani, Indian, or Bangladeshi, and in that order, or Arab or North African or Central Asian Muslims. And, so this has been a particularly difficult time for us. You know, maybe one of the panelists can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is probably the largest workforce, kind of concentrated workforce of Islamic peoples, certainly in New York City.

So since September 11, what we’ve seen is a tremendous rise in acts of violence against taxi drivers. When I talk about the taxi industry in New York City, it’s primarily the black car industry, the yellow cab industry and the car service industry. You know, black car drivers service mostly corporate clients. They have, they do get wages, they’re paid by a check system by the company and they get vouchers by the clients. And the yellow cab drivers who labor primarily within Manhattan and car service drivers who labor primarily outside Manhattans, in the outer boroughs. So while the Alliance organizes mostly yellow cab drivers, since September 11, we’ve also begun to start organizing black car and car service drivers, primarily because we had no choice because they've had no choice. And they’ve come knocking on our doors because there’s been nowhere else for them to go to. Many black car companies have just claimed bankruptcy. Many of the black car drivers, who own their cars, they now have nowhere to turn to because the company has just gone bankrupt, and just closed the shop. So they’re looking for more business, and at the same time, they’re having to pay off their investment on the car. Many of the yellow cab drivers have substantially lost their business.

First of all, throughout September, 90% of the drivers that we’ve surveyed were not even able to come into Manhattan because of the bridge and the tunnel closings, and just the rerouting of various streets within New York City. And so, yellow cab drivers pay a lease at the beginning of their shift, which is on average about a $100 per day. And plus, in addition to that, is about $30 every day for the gas money. So you normally work about 6 to 7 hours of your 12-hour shift just to make up for that negative balance. So the owners are guaranteed profits, the low-income people are not even guaranteed in income, right? And so, through September and October, what we’ve seen is that many drivers were not even able to cover their lease and their gas money. So they’ve dipped into credit cards, and friends, and you know, loans from friends and elsewhere - savings - in order just to cover their leases so they don’t lose their contracts with the company.

The larger number of drivers who’ve been able to cover their leases haven’t even been making, haven’t even been averaging a minimum wage per hour. I talk to so many drivers who are making anywhere from like, literally, $5 to like $50 per day. And $75 before September 11 was anyway the average income, so it’s not like things were so great to begin with. Then all of these levels of economic exploitation have further been exacerbated since the 11th. So you can imagine, especially the 75% of the workforce who are Muslim or Sikh drivers who’ve been at the front lines of much of the backlash of the attack, and the remaining drivers who are mostly immigrant workers, many African and Latin American Christians who are often mistaken as, "Muslims," right, who also faced many attacks.

There are just so many, just really heart-breaking incidences. Several of our members have had their cars set on fire, several of our members have had their cars either spray painted or just dented in. You know, windshields have been broken, the side windows have been cracked. Drivers in the first couple of weeks were not locking the front doors. Passerbys would pose as passengers and so the driver would stop, and so the passerby would walk up to the cab, open up the door and drag the driver out. We have so many incidences of that happening. So many incidences in the night time, of passengers carving, you know, things into the back seat. Pardon my language, but you know, things like "F--- the Arabs" or you know, sentiment of that nature just being carved into the back seat.

And so these are people right, walking in and out with weapons with immense levels of hatred and ignorance, and there’s nothing except a partition to protect you. And if you keep that partition closed at all times, you can be susceptible to a passenger complaint. And we’ve had incidences of drivers calling into the police station, which is what we really advise our members to do, to call up to the precincts, and drivers being told by police officers, "This is really minor, I’m sure you’ll survive it." And these are quotes. You know, one thing you find out when you’re an organizer, right, is that you really don’t need to use rhetoric because reality is just so much harsher than any rhetoric that your imagination can muster up.

I wish it was my imagination that was creating all this, but the reality of it is has been that even when drivers are in the middle of an incident when they pulled over, they’ve not had any assistance by either, you know, members of the authority, you know, police officers or other workers, government workers, or even by just people out on the streets. And that’s why for us moments like these are so important. Because you may not realize it, but when you go out there tomorrow, and you’re a little bit more conscious, certainly as a consumer, you can impact the working conditions. That also just as a passerby, you could participate in making the conditions of these low-income workers just so much safer, and helping another person literally survive out on the streets. And that is one of the ways that many drivers have gotten help; having good-hearted people who are not blinded by all this ignorance and stereotyping, stopping to ask drivers, "Well, how are you doing?" or intervening in certain moments and calling the police or standing there to make sure that an ambulance arrives. We’ve had so many incidences lately where once someone has been attacked, and the ambulance arrives and the police arrive, the individual being told, "Well, how do we know this is about racism? How do we know you didn’t provoke it? And if you want us to arrest this person, then we need to arrest you as well."

We’ve had several incidences of drivers being totally misinformed, and being told that, it’s your choice, either you go to the hospital to get a check up or you just spend a night in jail. And if you go to the hospital, we’ll end up detaining you for a couple more days. Just in a major harassment and abuse and exploitation since the 11th, and these are just in terms of the issues of safety that people are facing while they’re driving. There have been other incidences while they’re commuting on the subways, especially our night drivers whose shift ends at 5 am or mostly nowadays they’re trying to end their shift at anytime between 12 midnight and 2 am so they don’t reach home too late. So while they’re traveling home, being attacked, being attacked even within their neighborhoods after they park their cars. And just the fact that so many cabs that are just standing still in the parking areas at nighttime have been vandalized really, I think really illustrates the point that with this industry, Muslim drivers and immigrant drivers are really associated, right? And so there’s the assumption that when you see a yellow cab, the assumption is that the person behind the wheel will be either a Muslim or another immigrant of color. And so, just really obscene things being spray painted on cars.

We’ve also had incidences of many drivers being incredibly concerned about their families. That while they’ve been walking their kids, while they’ve been picking up their kids from school, their children being attacked, their children being cursed at. We had an incident, just to illustrate the point, we had an incident of a member who had, went to pick up two of his kids, and they’re really cute kids, they’re these two twins that are 8 years old, and it was our member and his wife, they’re a Bangladeshi family, they - both parents went to pick up the two kids and when they’re crossing the street, another private school was being let out, and the teachers and the parents literally stopped all the kids coming out of the school and they stood there and said to all the kids, "See, that’s what the terrorists look like."

And so many incidences from our members of passengers saying, you know, "Your people did this." "Are you Osama bin Laden?" "Are you related to Osama bin Laden?" One of our members whose car was set on fire, it took him 10 days to get a replacement car, and he’s still paying the lease the entire time. The first day he went back to work, and, I kid you not, the first passenger he had was a woman and a child, and the first thing the woman said to the child was, "That’s the terrorist. Those are the people that killed all of them at the World Trade Center." So you can imagine, right? This man has already been traumatized. This is the first incident he has when he goes back to work. So just the psychological impact of this on people, just the economic impact has already been devastating.