Ataur was 18 when he left Bangladesh and arrived in the US in 1991 as an undocumented migrant. He took two jobs at the same time, earning about $35 a day.
Vincent was smuggled into the US from China in 2001; his working conditions were even worse. He was employed in several Chinese restaurants, for 60-70 hours a week, six days a week, for about $300 a month, an average of $1 an hour.
“In New York, if you go in the street … if you ask 10 people, I’m sure at least five or six are undocumented,” Vincent told IPS. Both asked that only their first names be used.
The US is home to more than 11 million undocumented workers, and there are an estimated 2 million migrants working in New York. They are taxi drivers, domestic workers, restaurant, retail and construction staff. They are paid far less than the city’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and they are often mistreated by their employers.
Their lives may undergo major changes if the US House of Representatives approves an immigration bill, passed by the Senate last month, which offers a 13-year path to citizenship for undocumented migrants, but also reinforces border security and enables businesses to check workers’ social security numbers, under the E-verify programme.
The programme would make “every single undocumented person one click away from being notified or deported”, according to Monami Maulik, executive director of Desis Rising Up and Moving (Drum), an organisation of low-wage south Asian immigrants in Jackson Heights, Queens, which has 2,000 members.
“Our members … and many others in immigrant communities are really disappointed with this legislation. It’s turning out to be more and more repressive, harsher measures,” she said. “So we are following it very closely.”
After Latinos, she added, south Asians are among the second-largest undocumented population in New York.
Stolen wages, mental pressure and fear
According to Vincent, employers tend to say: I hire you even if you’re illegal, so you should say ‘thank you’, no matter how much I pay you.
Because there are so many undocumented migrants ready to work for extremely low wages, other needy workers are pressured to accept the same conditions, no matter what their immigration status and nationality are. Ataur’s sister, Amana, arrived legally in the US, but was paid less than the minimum wage for eight years.
Mental pressure at the workplace is huge. “When you’re late, they fire you. When you’re sick, they fire you … When you complain [about] anything, they can fire you,” said Vincent.
Maulik said employers often do not pay workers for a week or months at a time. “There has been a case of a year at a time. They’ll do things like hold people’s passports, threaten to call immigration if they ask for the wages that they earned,” she added.
In 2009, Drum launched monthly rights clinics to help migrant workers reclaim unpaid wages and raise awareness of their rights.
In a phone interview, Sayma Khun, a Bangladeshi national, described how she managed to recover, with the help of Drum, $5,000 of unpaid wages.
In 2008, Vincent, with 35 colleagues, filed a lawsuit against their employer, in this case with the help of the Chinatown-based Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association (CSWA). But as soon as the lawsuit was filed, the restaurant was shut down. It reopened later in a different location under a new name, a strategy widely used by some employers to avoid lawsuits, according to Vincent.
Maulik said: “By federal law this is not supposed to happen. Even undocumented workers are protected under US labour laws around minimum wage.”
In order to launch a neighbourhood-wide investigation into workers’ rights, the department of labour needs a certain number of individual complaints. But workers often refrain from complaining because they fear employers’ retaliation and deportation.
The husband of Nadera Kashem, a Bangladeshi Drum member, is at risk of being deported after he was caught during a police raid last year at the perfume shop he worked in. Because he was undocumented, he was sent to an immigration detention centre. He has been there for 17 months.
“The employer is supposed to be punished [in such cases], but it always means the worker is punished,” said Maulik.
At the local level, immigration is being enforced by police officers, often accused by migrants’ rights organisations of profiling and discrimination. “The biggest fear an undocumented person has is the local police officer, because that’s the person who’s going to stop you, ask you for identification, possibly deport you,” Maulik said.
In June, the New York City council passed two bills of the Community Safety Act establishing accountability mechanisms for the New York police department (NYPD) and allowing citizens to file claims against NYPD’s misbehaviour.
Finding the courage to speak up
“We see no future, why are we still working like slaves? So that’s why I organised my co-workers, we wanted to improve the working conditions, and not just for ourselves,” Vincent told IPS. Before joining CSWA, he said, he did not even know that there was a minimum wage or what overtime meant.
“Organising protects you, never puts you in trouble,” is what Kazi Fouzia, a Bangladeshi community organiser who joined Drum in 2010, tells other migrant workers to encourage them to speak up.
Fouzia used to work in a sari shop in Jackson Heights. Her employer, who owned three stores, asked her to collect clothes from another shop across the street. While she was crossing, she was hit by a car and thrown 13ft.
Fouzia’s employer did not allow her to call the emergency services because she was undocumented. She had multiple fractures in her shoulder, but she did not have insurance so the only medical care she received was painkillers. The next day she discovered she had been fired.
This is not only a personal story, she told IPS, “this is every undocumented worker’s story, every one”.