Workers are in class, factories are empty: Owners charge September 11th Fund ESL program hurts Chinatown’s garment industry

The English as a Second Language (ESL) program set up in Chinatown by the September 11th Fund for workers who lost their jobs after the tragedy stirred an uproar among garment factory owners. The owners complain that the full-time class has attracted too many workers with its offer of a stipend and health insurance, in addition to the opportunity to study. And factories are almost empty even though they have plenty of orders at hand, they say.

Three Chinese garment industry trade organizations called the press to address their concerns on March 14. They agreed that the purpose of the September 11th Fund is to help workers. However, they said, the ESL program set up in Chinatown worsened the propsects of the already battered garment industry here. They condemned the September 11th Fund one factor turning the garment factory owners into the biggest victims of September 11th.

To help non-English-speaking immigrant workers improve their competitive advantage in the labor market, the September 11th Fund, a nonprofit organization, allocated grants to six Chinese organizations in Chinatown to set up ESL classes. The Fund also provides workers who attend more than 25 hours of class per week with a $300 weekly stipend. At the same time, the union promises to keep the workers’ health insurance during the time they attend class.

A traditional industry in Chinatown, the garment industry used to be very prosperous. The total number of factories reached 700 at its heyday. However, with only about 100 left, it has been called a “sunset industry.” The factory owners said that too many workers quitting their jobs to attend the full-time English classes had driven the existing factories to the brink of closure. Yimou Zhang, a factory owner, invited reporters to his factory. The firm used to have more than 60 workers. There are only about 10 left. “All the others went to the class,” Zhang said. “I am not able to finish the orders because of the lack of help.”

Mrs. Ho, who is older than 40, lost her job. To keep her health insurance and get the $300 weekly stipend, she enrolled in the ESL class set up by the September 11th Fund. “You can study, and you still get money. I may have to thank bin Laden for this,” Mrs. Ho said. Although the factories claim they have plenty of orders, Mrs. Ho said that it’s only false prosperity. “The country is in a war, so the demand for uniforms is high now,” Mrs. Ho said. “But after the war, it will be as hard for the factories to get orders as it was before.”

Mrs. Ho said she hopes the up-to-13-week English classes will help her to find a job out of the garment industry. Even if her English doesn’t improve, “I won’t lose anything, because I still have the stipend and health insurance,” Mrs. Ho said.

The Chinese American Planning Council is one of the six organizations that received funds from the September 11th Fund. Chi Loek, the assistant executive director of the Employment and Training Division of the organization, didn’t see any need to change or cancel the ESL program. He said, since CPC got the grant, they would try to provide the best ESL class for the students. Loek said there are about 10,000 garment workers in Chinatown. September 11th Fund’s ESL program is only able to help about 3,000 students. It’s apparently not the reason for the lack of workers in the factories. Also, Loek pointed out that most students in the class only study in the morning—they are able to go back to work in the afternoon.

May Ying Chen, the vice-president of UNITE! and associate manager of UNITE! Local 23-25, said that the union has learned of the complaints from factory owners, and it will try to coordinate with all sides. But Chen emphasized the business of the garment industry is still not good enough and studying English is the only way for workers to improve their life.

The September 11th Fund didn’t respond before deadline.

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