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Worker's Rights and Immigrant Communities

Chinatown, New York (Marionzetta/Flickr)

Chinatown, New York (Marionzetta/Flickr)

And the worse your economic condition are, the less choices you have, right? It doesn’t matter if you think your life is going to be on the line. If you’re not making enough money to feed yourself and your family, you have no choice but to go back out there and work. You say a prayer and you do what you must do to feed your family. And one thing I see, you know, for the Alliances, many of the member are coming forward are actually coming forward regarding their economic issues. So I’ll do an intake with the person and 45 minutes later as you’re leaving, they’ll say - you know when I say, "What are the reason you couldn’t work during those days?" - "Oh you know, my car was set on fire," "Oh, by the way, I’ve been attacked, I was hospitalized."

All these incidences are almost becoming secondary to people because, first of all, there’s an environment where so much of the hatred has just been kind of internalized, where you don’t feel safe to come forward to any authority because you don’t know if for any random reason the INS will be tracking you, right? We know so many people in that community that are being detained, we don’t know exactly what the reasons are. So even if you are documented, you just don’t feel safe right now. And so you’re not coming forward. And so of course, this has impacted people’s ability just to advocate for themselves and to change the day-to-day conditions, but it’s also had a tremendous impact on our organizing work. Just, you can’t demonstrate right now, you can’t go on strike right now, and yet, you don’t have any legal protection as independent contractors, you don’t have much legal protection as immigrants, you don’t have much legal protection as people of color. So what are your choices? If you cannot fight in the courtroom, you have to fight out on the street. And if it’s so unsafe for you to fight out on the street, what are your choices to advocate for yourself? So these are some of the issues that we’ve been contending with as a workforce and as an organization. I really didn’t get into too much of the details regarding the industry structure and more of the demographics that, just for the sake of time, I think I’ll save that for the question and answer period.

Vanessa Lesnie

I would think the moral of that story is what they say in the place where I come from, Australia, is, "Say G’day to your taxi driver today." [laughter] Alex, if you’d like to tell us a little bit about the hotel and restaurant experience.

Alex Hing

Yeah, just to, Muzaffar kind of laid down the conditions of immigrants via the labor situation. I guess the one thing I want to emphasize is that people come to the United States for all kinds of reasons, economic…democracy is a big one. And the right of workers to have a union has not always been seen by the people as a fundamental human civil right. And one of the ways that immigrants are discriminated against is that their right to join unions has basically been denied them, for one reason or another. Now I’m not saying that unions are perfect, I belong to the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, and we basically are part of the umbrella of the AFL-CIO, the AFL-CIO that was responsible for passing the Chinese exclusion act. So we understand that we have, as immigrants or as people who advocate for the rights of immigrant workers have a battle on two fronts. One is that we have to fight within the trade union movement to make unions more responsive to the needs of immigrant, to go out and organize immigrant workers. And that’s one of the things that we have been doing, to try to train more organizer, seek more organizers, and get unions to accept having immigrant workers work for them on staff. But the other part is to work within the community to get people to understand what a trade union can do.

I work in the hotel industry. I’ve been working in the same hotel now for almost twenty years. And the impact of, you know, formerly we were in a growth industry, but what happened after 9/11 - and we have to understand that we’re not just talking about 9/11 because the economy was weak before then, then there was 9/11, then the economy started to come back, then we went to war. Okay? So that’s what we’re talking about now. I think we have to understand that we’re not just talking about a terrorist incident that happened to us in the United States, but that the United States is going to war. And that impacts on our economy. That impacts on people wanting to travel, that impacts on people wanting to stay in hotels and spend money, etc, etc. That impacts on the kinds of jobs that are available. I walked around the hotel today saying that, you know, maybe we’re in the wrong business, maybe we should be making spare parts for jet parts. We had maybe six customers in our restaurant.

So we have to understand that what unions can do for immigrant works, like when this situation happened. Now let me explain to you, we lost 4 hotels, were shut immediately down in the area of the World Trade Center. Two were destroyed. And yet you have to understand that a lot of the workers in these same hotels are the same kind of people that sister Desai is talking about. You know, people from the Middle East, people from South Asia, Muslims, are working in these hotels. I know a brother who's an Indonesian Muslim who lost his job literally, his job got blown away from him, first at the Vista, and then it became the Marriott. And he’s a Muslim himself. What our union did was set up an emergency center, so that people spontaneously just came to the union, because what other organization could they go to seek help? People from the area came to union immediately. We’re up to now, maybe around 10,000 jobs lost.

So, immediately, we had to set up centers to help people get unemployment, and we fought with the state unemployment agency to waive the waiting period. We also had people from food stamps available. People lost their IDs. So we had people from Social Security there, so people could get IDs right away so they could plug back into the system. We had people from our mental health center so people can start talking about their trauma and working it out. And we set up a number of things. But that doesn’t negate the fact that we have thousands of people now who are without jobs. And as the sister said, one of the most important things about the job is to have your health benefits. So, what we did was that we went to the employer, well, first we went to our benefit fund and we got the benefit fund to extend for six months. See, normally after a month of unemployment you lose your medical - we got the health fund to extend to 6 months for those 4 hotels that were shut down, medical benefits. And then we went to each of the employers, we went to the Marriott, we went the Hilton, and got them to give a corporate, another extension of six months. So all those workers at the Site now have 1 year of medical coverage even though they’re not working. This is something a union can do.

What we also did, we also understood that other workers who are outside the area are going to be impacted, because there’s no longer airline travel, and that other workers are being thrown out of their jobs. So we went to the employers, and we demanded- because other corporations are pitching in to the relief effort - for the employers to kick in some money to extend the medical benefits. We got them to kick in $5 million to extend the medical benefits for other workers outside Ground Zero who are unemployed. We also released $2 million from our treasury to kick into that fund. And what we did is, on our job, we got employers to create for a limited time, to have a voluntary work reduction. So, now I’m on a 4-day work week, so that we can - if enough people do that, we can bring people back to work, at least enough so that they can make some money, they can preserve their health benefits, at least put off the inevitable for a while. So we’re going on a week-to-week basis. But this is something that a union can do.

And what the unions have been facing, what we have been facing, a lot of the labor movement is being shaken up. One, because in the U.S. the labor movement is on a severe decline and the only growth sector in the labor movement is among immigrant workers. So, prior to the war and the terrorist act, there was a big push - and our union was responsible, APALO was responsible for getting the national AFL-CIO to put forward amnesty for undocumented workers. Well, that is not going to happen in the near future. But those are the things that we actually need.

And before I end, I just want to raise one thing. We talk about discrimination against Muslims, South Asians because what happened at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. All the things that the sister described are happening. But there’s another thing that’s also happening that is almost as important. Is that I work with a lot of people from the Mid- East, Coptic Egyptians, people from, Muslims from South Asia, Indonesia. What is happening is that people are afraid to voice their political opinions. And that is what is really dangerous about what is happening in the United States today. Because a lot of people want to say that the United States has been a stanch supporter of Israel, and that Israel has been denying the Palestinians their fundamental rights to a homeland, and unless that problem is solved, there will be a basis for a continuation of a generation of terrorists. And people are now afraid to say that. They feel they can’t say that.

And you know, I see people at work, and they’re wearing American flags - it’s for self-defense. It’s for self-defense. They put it on, and they won’t be harassed. But the fear in people’s faces is really, really there. And you know, a lot more of this has to be brought out. That this is a country that people came to, we’re supposed to have democracy, yet people are afraid to speak what they think about a political situation. And what is the basis of this. You have a Crown Prince from Saudi Arabia who wants to give a million dollars to New York City for the relief effort, and we have a mayor who comes out and refuses to take the money because the Crown Prince stated a legitimate political position. So if the mayor can do this to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, what’s a dish washer gonna do? So I’ll leave you with that, okay?

Vanessa Lesnie

I’d like to thank all three speakers, I think we’ve all got a really good sense of how September 11 has impacted the lives of some of the people who work in the industries that we all rely on-the taxi industry, the hotel, restaurant industry, any of the industries that we sort of rely on to have our daily life. I would like to open it up now for questions. We have, I’ve been told we have until 7:30. I understand that some of you may have to leave, but if you can stay and you would like to ask some questions, just to ask you identify yourself before you pose your question. Does anyone have a question?