Worker's Rights and Immigrant Communities

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? 

Muzaffar Chishti

Yes, thank you very much. I’m very glad to be here and especially glad to be on the panel after their first, the opening of the new building of Asia Society which we all waited with bated breath to see what this building would look like. I mean this is obviously a very sad time to be talking on a topic like this. Immigrant workers always have it very difficult in this country, in the city, in our communities but they obviously have never had it more difficult than after September 11th of this year. I thought what I would do is to provide a context for the importance of protecting workers’ rights and their communities in our nation, the conditions under which the workers have been living and the effects of enforcement of law on workers, both as human beings and as workers in the workplace. And then talk briefly about what has changed after 9-11.

First of all, all of us know that immigration is big, it’s big, and it has never been bigger; we call ourselves a nation of immigrants but we have truly never been more a nation of immigrants than we are today. We know by now, by the census of 2000, that about 11 million people came to United States to live here permanently in the last decade of the twentieth century. We would always say that 1990s is going to be the biggest decade of immigration in the United States, except for the first two decades of the twentieth century. We can no longer say that. The 1990s were the high watermark of immigration in the United States. The second most important fact about immigration is that 68% of the immigrants who come to live in the United States today, have come in the last twenty years. We have never had such concentration of immigrants in such short period of time. The third most important factor about immigration, from my point of view, is that immigrants today are settling not only in what we call the traditional immigration settlement communities in the metropolitan areas of the country but are increasingly settling in parts of the country where traditionally are not associated with immigration settlements. So, it has become much more of a national phenomenon than it used to be. And the last thing is that though Latino and Asian immigration continues to be the dominant sort of flow for immigration, immigrants from all parts of the world are now settling in the United States in very large numbers. This is true about immigration as a picture in general.

And now, what is the context about our labor market? About, as labor counts will tell you, about 10 to 12% of our labor force today is foreign born. But when we actually talk about people who enter the labor force for the first time, which we call "new entrants", it’s about 25% and in about next three to four years it’s going to go up to about 33%. So, immigrants as a component of the labor market is now much more pronounced than it ever has been. Where this phenomenon has been most dramatic is in the low wage sector of the labor market. First of all, our economists and politicians argue that, seven or eight years ago, the last time I lobbied the 1990 Act, which was the last major immigration act that Congress passed with respect to admissions of people. Business will tell Congress that all we need in United States are college-degree people, there is absolutely no need of people that have low wages and low skills. And Congress systematically passed legislation to encourage a high-skilled level of immigration to the United States. Guess what happened. The low-wage workers in the United States are here to stay and they are growing, and they are growing phenomenally in the last ten years. And in fact, they were the most prominently in the service sector of the economy. The service sector of the economy has grown about 50% in the last fifteen years. Since we talked about globalization, we all know that globalization and restructuring of the economy has a lot to do with the growth of the service sector. A good part of manufacturing has gone abroad and in place, in the U.S., what has grown is the service sector of the economy. And even though we grew, Wall Street for eight years in a row in New York City, sociologists like my friend, Saskia Sassen, constantly remind us that Wall Street yuppies need a lot of people to clean up after themselves. And that’s what the phenomenon we saw throughout the 80s and the 90s in New York City.

In New York City itself, wages, jobs that pay wages $25,000 or less per year have grown about 4 times than jobs that pay $25,000 to $75,000 a year. So, though we always think about the growth of Wall Street in New York, the real growth in the labor market in New York has taken place in the low-wage sector of our economy. While this is sort of generally known, what is not appreciated in economics literature is that the wages in the low-wage sector have gone down consistently in the last 25 years. In fact, wages in the service sector of the economy compared to, in real terms, when you factor in inflation, have been steadily declining in the United States since the late 1970s. Therefore, if you, it’s not - it’s not surprising therefore from this stark reality, that the only people who are interested in taking low wage jobs, especially in the service sector of the economy, are immigrant workers. And the numbers are beginning to tell the story. If you look at, what we call, the high immigration communities of the country, which means where immigrants constitute more than 10% of the population, the big metropolitan centers, labor economists will tell you, that about three-fourths of the workers in the low wage sector in those communities are foreign-born people.

Now, if you’re therefore a union -talk about unions for the time being, which is interested in organizing workers in the low-wage sectors of the economy, you have no choice but to organize immigrant workers in today’s economy. That’s why you'll see that one union after another, not only the union that I represent, but Service Employees International Union, the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, Food and Commercial Workers Union, and the Farm Workers Union have in the last 10 years, systematically been organizing immigrants at a very large scale.

Now while there’s excitement about organizing immigrants has absolutely been true, unions have confronted two major problems with respect to organizing immigrant workers. One is, no surprise, that a large number of these workers in the low-wage sector lack documentation. These are what we typically call "undocumented workers." Second, is that there is a strange law, enacted by Congress in 1986, called the Employers Sanctions Law, which is intended to punish employers for hiding undocumented workers. Actual practice of the last 15 years has showed us the law has done nothing to deter employers from hiding undocumented workers, it has done nothing to deter illegal immigration in the United States, but has actually been used very effectively by employers to depress the wages and working conditions of their workers.

And this is sort of typically how it happens. If a worker works at a place, the employer frequently knows that the worker does not have documentation. In fact, in my experience, the employer frequently refers you to a documentation-producing entity just around the corner say, "Come back with some documents so that I can hire you." But the same worker then, if he decides or she decides to assert their right before the Department of Labor for wage rights or joins the union or decides to arbitrate a grievance, the employer suddenly discovers the Employers Sanctions and God at the same time, and says, "Look, I can no longer be on the wrong side of law and God, and therefore, I must terminate your services." This also gets manifested itself when there is a letter received by the employer from the Social Security Administration that says, we have found no matches between your names and the social security numbers of all the workers, and the employer uses that letter to terminate people, especially if the workers are inconvenient for that particular employer.

So, we have seen obviously, the combination of lack of status of people and the punitive aspect of the Employer Sanctions law create havoc in the lives and rights of workers in the United States. That’s why trade union had a monumental break through last year, decided to ask Congress for a fundamental change in immigration policy. We’ve asked Congress to have, to enact a new law which would legalize undocumented workers in the United States - by all estimates there are about 6 to 8 million people - and we asked Congress to repeal the Employer Sanctions law. We’re beginning actually to make very strong progress in that. In fact, those of you follow the news of President Fox’s visits to the United States with President Bush, there was a strong agreement between Mexico and the United States for a new legalization program. And we thought this would actually even happen this year. September 11 obviously turned a lot of things upside down. The first, one of the first casualties of, in the immigration field, was that the legalization program, not only for Mexicans, but for all workers, is obviously off the table. So I think it’s, we will probably not see a legalization program at least until the year 2003.

But in the meantime, what has happened in the reality of these workers, the first obvious thing is that the same workers who had now constituted an extremely important part of this growing service sector of our economy were the first casualties of the 9/11 phenomenon. The first set of people who lost jobs in the country were people who we normally associate with the hospitality industry. Hotels lost their business, taxis lost their business, resorts lost their business, restaurants lost their business. So, the people who were obviously were working in those sets, subsets of the economy were the first to lose their jobs. Secondly by a strange coincidence, these are exactly the people who got victimized for hate crimes. And these are exactly the people who got victimized for racially biased enforcement of our immigration and criminal law. And the third, which is obviously beginning to take effect now, is that a large number of these people not only lost their jobs, but have lost health insurance. Because these were people whose entire health insurance were tied to their jobs.

So, if you don’t have health insurance in the United States, and you don’t have a job, your life becomes, obviously, very difficult to bear. Now, there are safety nets for this. That’s exactly what, in the situation like this, a safety net is built for. But again, by a sheer set of circumstances, this is exactly the group of people that are not eligible for a good number of the benefits of our safety net programs. So, the combination of the effect of unemployment, the effect of lack of their health status, and the non-eligibility to various benefits has made these people some of the most vulnerable members of our population today. It’s a challenge of the enormity that we in the immigrant-rights community have never confronted, and the only hope is that if the public benefits are not going to be available to these people and though we’re making some attempts to seek changes in laws and their benefits, that private charity and private programs will soon be in place to supplement the lack of public benefits that these people will not have access to. Thank you.

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.

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? 

Question and Answer Session

Muzaffar Chishti

The Supreme Court is actually about to decide a very major case, and we’re all disappointed that they accepted to serve on the case, whether undocumented workers are eligible to the full protections of the National Labor Relations Act. As you know, the Supreme Court has visited this issue only once, which was in 1984, in a case called Sure-Tan where the Court said that labor laws apply to all workers without regard to their status. But some, Justice O’ Conner who wrote the opinion said the Court was able to reach that decision because there was no Employer Sanctions Law, which made it unlawful for an employer to hire undocumented workers. So we have all agreed there is a wrinkle in this, that we have been spared all these years - there was a district, D.C. district appeals court decision which is being appealed to the Supreme Court, so that will determine a lot what the future about the protection of undocumented workers are going to be. So, I will be hoping that the Supreme Court will go with the majority of the circuit courts, so you know, I think…if that law stays as is, then we are still in the realm where all labor laws and remedies do apply to undocumented workers. It’s in the area of public benefits, where not only undocumented but a large number of legal immigrants have been excluded from safety net programs. And that needs, and very - that’s all came out of welfare reform. That needs a very significant change of our public benefits program. Which I think is harder to get at this time. That’s why you have, I think what Alex is talking about, the unions program about health care. This is where private, sort of relief is really much more relevant. I mean, the hotel employers can suddenly say, we've got to change out all regulations about our own health care program, and we’ll give coverage to people for a year. And that’s what private, sort of we can do we in private programs, it’s very hard to change the public benefit rules.

Question: Thank you. I’m Eleanor Garvey, City University of New York. One of the historic roles of the union is to provide education and training, which is from my own research, not really been a key factor over the last couple of years. I would like to know, now that we’ve gone through an economic change, an involuntary one as it happens, what the unions are planning or have started to do in terms of providing that kind of education and training that will retool the members for the new reality that we’re facing. That’s number one. Number two, as a result of the, many of the restaurant workers were lost during the World Trading Center, certainly the people in Windows on the World, and other parts of the hospitality and travel and tourism industry really suffered severely during that period, but they also then now are entitled, their families are entitled to many of the benefits even being provided by the various funds that have raised hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as by the Marriotts and the Hiltons that are providing services and financial assistance to those families, and those good deeds have not been addressed, and I would like you to put some effort into addressing those.

Alex Hing

Actually, we have this consortium for workers( education. It’s existed for some number of years, and that has been an ongoing program that basically will do anything to retrain or train and educate a worker or a group of workers so that they’re able to continue employment. This consortium is a consortium basically of unions, and basically, the consortium sets up programs and seeks out grants to run these programs to retrain workers. So, a number of the people from the hotel and restaurant industry were immediately sent to the CWE to do retraining. So I don’t know if you’re aware if this program exists, and it’s been a really great program.

Eleanor Garvey

I’m also addressing the fact that unions and the members have not approached the various city universities and other educational institutions in New York in order to try and get their members enrolled in either continuing education courses or apply for degree programs. I mean, this is a golden opportunity, if you will, for people to become educated and to get degrees that will then help them advance in their careers.

Alex Hing

I think the unions have been doing that in an ongoing way. A part of it is, you have to be working in order for you and your family to accrue the benefits. The employer pays so many cents per hour into a benefit fund, and a part of that is being used for education.


How about financial aid packages for people who are enrolled in the program?

Alex Hing

That’s a good point, and we can raise that. But the other part...see, there isn’t all that much money being made available. There are many…okay, see, one of the things that we’ve been screwing around here, when we talk about immigration, we’re haven’t really talked about race. Because it’s not all immigrants that are being discriminated against. I mean, historically and even now, in the U.S. And, you know, part of it is institutional and systematic. I mean, how many black firemen has anybody seen? And a lot of the money that is being raised for this relief fund goes to the widows’ and orphans’ fund for firemen and policemen. But how many funds are there available for dishwashers, really? Our union is involved in one. The Windows of the World, Windows of Hope is, part of that money is for restaurant workers. But actually, the way the relief money is being distributed is a big issue. Not a lot of it is going to immigrant workers, a lot of whom were displaced and who lost family members at the World Trade Center. So that is a big issue. Because I know a brother, who’s very close to me, who lost his job the second time when his hotel got blown up, who’s received very, very little money, and in order for - FEMA won’t give him any money. So basically, he feels that he has to go around hat in hand, finding a list of agencies, and basically begging them for say, a month abatement of rent here, some food stamps there. So I think that, if you want me to acknowledge that there is tremendous amounts of money coming in for the relief effort, I will acknowledge that. My problem is how it’s being distributed.

Vanessa Lesnie

Can you add to that?

Muzaffar Chishti

You probably obviously know more about this than I do, but I think you should really - the Consortium of Work Education’s success has been quite phenomenal. And why it’s sort of been worked is that it’s sort of more work-based education. One of the problems that a lot of workers have, especially in the low-wage sector, is that you really cannot take time off to go and attend college. It’s just…


That’s what financial aid packages are for.

Muzaffar Chishti: But they can’t really…the financials never gives you enough to take time off of work, especially if you really live in these informal sectors of the economy. So what the Consortium of Worker Education has done, and I think reasonably, should be given reasonable credit, and the stature of it is, it’s a heavily state-funded program, is to do a lot of workplace-based education. Which is really what a large number of these workers need. In fact, talking just about 9/11 stuff, we haven’t actually waged a great sort of focused discussion at the Consortium of Worker Education right now as to how we can respond in a way that public entities can’t, to the displacement of people and providing them sort of both retraining for jobs and English training and all that which will sort of facilitate this transition a little more. And I think you should probably look at the experience of the Consortium of Worker Education, and not really just look at the solution as always going to be university education for a lot of these workers.

Bhairavi Desai

There is a cap limit, meaning that, per year, a worker is entitled to $2000, a maximum cap of $2000 per year. And for a grant that is given to a worker, for grants there is a limit of $2000 per year that goes to the worker for his training. It's something but it's not enough.

Vanessa Lesnie

Time is getting a little bit away from us. I think, giving a 5-10 minute reprieve, I have 2 last questions.


I would like to know specifically what legal or social reforms you would like to see come out of this event, things that you feel the community needs right now immediately or things that you want to see long term.

Muzaffar Chishti

Well, I mean, we want changes, I mean, how about this? Sticking to the themes we’ve started with. I think we want changes in immigration laws, which I think are two…are two levels that are going to help a large number of immigrants. I think however difficult it is to talk about amnesty today, we have to put amnesty back on the table. Because ultimately, the fundamental change of law is going to help a large number of people address their issues not only as human beings but as workers. There are eight, pretty close to six to eight million illegal aliens in the United States. That’s a large number of people living in the shadows. We have to get back on the agenda asking for a legalization program. We have to get on the agenda asking for the end of Employer Sanctions because it has become one of the most repressive labor laws on the books that can ever intending to be a labor law. We have to tighten our ethnic profiling and racial profiling laws. In fact, we’re about to make some reasonable headway in that direction because of the "Driving While Black" campaign in New Jersey, with the state troopers who actually came very close to having reasonably important ethnic profiling language regarding immigration raids. And we, actually despite how bad the climate is today and the terrorism bill that has just passed, we lobbied pretty heavily even this terrorism bill to put some anti-ethnic profiling language in. I think we’re going to go back to that. In the second round of some of the national security legislation, we are going to insist on putting some ethnic profiling language back. And we need to see serious reform of welfare reform package. We have excluded a large of number of people who need the protection of our public benefits the most, from some of the most needed safety programs. So I think those are the four areas we need legislative action.


In response to some of the suggestions, I just wonder whether the panel here thinks that organizers right now really have a duty to be incredibly careful about what economic equity issues must be raised to employers. Because most employers at this point are very willing, and are just itching to outsource a lot of lower wage work to international forums, to get rid of lower immigrant workers, not to make sure they don’t get benefits. So the more organizers push at this moment for economic equity, and immigrant equity, and various legal reforms, the greater impetus you give specific employers to kick immigrant laborers out of this country.

Muzaffar Chishti

I gotta to respond to that because our reaction has been just the opposite. That this is the time when strangely, we are putting out labels of "Made Proudly in New York." If you go to Bloomingdales today, you will find clothing full of "Made Proudly in New York." Talking about sort of "beacons of hope." This, it happened actually as a conversation between the head of Nordstrom, you know this big department store, the head of Nordstrom happened to call Nicole Miller, which is a big designer, and said, "How much of your clothing do you get made in New York?" And the head of Nicole Miller said, "We get about 60%…" He said, "I want you to put 80% of your clothing out in New York. I want to have labels ‘Made in New York.’" And you know, this may not last, but I think there is a certain period where we have the opportunity of not only pushing "Made in New York, " but also "Proudly made in New York." And I think those are some of the examples that I think, you know are going to….you probably have seen about the car sales. There was a big Wall Street Journal article yesterday, car sales in this country have gone up in the last month, oddly speaking. And American-made cars have gone up in the last month. So this kind of plays in all kind of directions, so I don’t think it’s really going to be all that bad. Anyway, I think Alex may want to say something.

Alex Hing

Yeah, you’re just pointing out….one of the things that the labor movement is actually starting to do in New York at an accelerated pace is to build solidarity with other trade union movements throughout the world. Because we are in a global society. So the trade unions have to start to work together around the world to implement a standard. But I think just because business threatens to run away is not a reason to not demand what’s right. Because anything can happen. It’s the same thing as "A terrorist attack can happen." So do we stop living? We need to press forward what we need to employers, and how they respond, they’re going to have to live with how they respond, but it’s an ongoing battle. But I don’t think that what an employer might do is any reason for us to not figure out how to get around that.

Vanessa Lesnie

I’m sorry to have to wrap it up. I believe you might be able to come to table quickly if you have other questions you want to pose. In the meantime, I’d like to thank Muzaffar, Bhairavi, and Alex for a really interesting evening, and to thank the Asia Society for hosting the evening and to invite you to the drink and snacks. I also understand that in the booklets on the seats, there was a questionnaire which, if you could fill out and hand to the Asia Society staff, they’d be most grateful. So thank you very much.