Two reports highlight problem of low-wage jobs
by Brendan McGrath
Jul 25, 2012 | 1142 views | 0 0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
South Asian workers, many of them undocumented, make up an increasingly large portion of New York City’s workforce.

There are over 600,000 South Asians in New York City and that number is growing. With that, the employment conditions that many of these people face have developed into a significant social issue in the city.

DRUM (Desis Rising Up & Moving) released a report on the state of South Asian workers in New York City on Wednesday, July 18. The group, which works for social and economic justice for South Asian immigrant workers, teamed up with the Community Development Project to produce the report.

Comprised of 180 surveys, seven focus groups and 10 in-depth interviews, the report made a number of findings suggesting that South Asian immigrant workers suffer from a lack of labor rights in the city.

More than half of all survey respondents reported that they make less than minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour. This is, in DRUM’s perspective, compounded by the high cost of living, which, at $14 per hour, is about twice the median wage of the survey’s responders.

Beyond the low wages, DRUM expressed serious unrest about the conditions that many South Asian workers face. These workers, according to the findings of the study, often suffer from harassment at the hands of their employers, the police and their customers.

Fear of deportation causes anguish for many of these workers, as their bosses sometimes hold the threat of alerting immigration authorities over them. The actual or perceived Muslim faith of many South Asian immigrants has contributed to even greater profiling in the years since the 9/11 attacks, according to DRUM.

Of the people surveyed, 95 percent said that they did not receive health coverage from their employer. Kazi Fouzia shared her story, which was subsequently translated to English, about breaking her arm on Christmas Day, 2010, while working for a local employer.

“My co-workers and some people on the street wanted to call 911 for an ambulance, but my boss stopped us,” Fouzia said. “[My boss] threatened to fire the workers if anyone called 911 for me.”

Her boss feared getting in trouble for his labor practices if the police arrived, so Fouzia was forced to take a taxi to the hospital. When she returned to work the next day with a fractured arm, she was fired due to her injury.

DRUM has presented a number of policy recommendations in response to the findings of its report. They call for government labor officials to enforce labor laws in a status-blind manner, in order to ease the concerns of undocumented workers who suffer from harmful work conditions.

DRUM also pointed out the practice of employers withholding wages from workers, as was personalized in an account by Councilman Daniel Dromm.

“I had a boy who lived in my building, who worked for a month and was owed $700,” Dromm said. He went on to note that even with his help, the boy only collected about half of his pay. “These are the stories that come into my office on almost a daily basis.”

DRUM recommended that the government increase the penalty on employers who retaliate against workers who seek to invoke their labor rights.

The following day, a march was held in Jamaica to announce the release of a similar report on low-wage workers in New York. This report, produced by UnitedNY and ALIGN, focused on the overall influx of low-wage jobs in the city.

By focusing on economic inequality on the whole, the report explores what it views as a widening gap over the past four decades. The current minimum wage has significantly less buying power than it did in 1970.

Con Edison and Toys ‘R’ Us were among the bigger names referenced in this report, suggesting that the companies bring in large profits, but pay many of their workers little over minimum wage.

Other portions of this study echo the DRUM report in the prevalence of workers making less than minimum wage, often under poor working conditions. Supermarkets and carwashes were targeted on this front, as the study found many workers make less than minimum wage at these establishments.

This report’s recommendations, like DRUM’s, call for an increase to the minimum wage, while also requiring employers who receive taxpayer subsidies pay a living wage and hire local workers.

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