In Chinatown, More Jobs Than Workers

On Eldridge Street in Chinatown (Manhattan), more than a dozen employment agencies – some with signs only in Chinese – target Chinese residents looking for work. (Photo by Daisy Li via World Journal)

On Eldridge Street in Chinatown (Manhattan), more than a dozen employment agencies – some with signs only in Chinese – target Chinese residents looking for work. (Photo by Daisy Li via World Journal)

The Chinese have been known for their hard-working tradition. But now things look a little different. Many job placement agencies find that it is getting harder to fill job openings at restaurants, nail salons and supermarkets. Sometimes they have more positions than applicants. It is not rare that newly-placed workers quit after a few days. Some employers who need help urgently wait outside the agencies in person, only to be “declined” by picky job seekers.

Ms. Zhang, who is in charge of a job placement agency in Chinatown, said that years ago, many new immigrants would be happy if they could find a regular job and work in restaurants as a cook, kitchen assistant or waiter, or work as a massage therapist or nanny. They believed that as long as they got a wage, they’d be able to fulfill their American dream one day. Now there are more and more restaurants and nail salons, but fewer people are willing to take jobs that are difficult, tedious or require long hours.

Chinatown is a place that has a high density of job placement agencies. For example, on Eldridge Street alone, there are more than 10 of them in a row. These agencies sometimes don’t even have signage in their English name. They only serve the Chinese. The same is true on Forsyth Street.

Job applicants come in and out with their friends and acquaintances. They talk in their hometown Fuzhou dialect, sharing experiences of job searching. Some agency staff members complain that it is really hard to find workers who would like to work on a long-term basis, no matter whether they have immigration documents or not. Job applicants who know a little English have more opportunities and, therefore, are even pickier.

Mr. Zheng, a 29-year-old from Fujian Province, China, has changed jobs several times since he arrived in the U.S. He has worked as a restaurant kitchen assistant and busboy, as well as a flyer distributor on the street. He said immigrants his age often gather together to complain about their current and former bosses, and share information about new job openings. Few people remain with one employer. If they are not happy, they quit. “After all, it’s not that hard to find a new job,” he said.

Nickole, a 23-year-old woman from Fuzhou, came to the U.S. alone three years ago. She is undocumented and is not able to go to school so she has to rely on the job placement agencies in Chinatown to find a job. She tried to look for jobs online as well. But she thinks jobs posted online are not reliable. An agency in Chinatown helped her find a job at a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan as an order taker, which cost her $20.

Nickole said every time she wants to change jobs, she comes to the job placement agencies. She talks to the potential employer on the phone. If there is no red flag, she takes the offer. “Whether one can get a good job all depends on luck. I know people who took a plane to go to a new job far from New York and quit and returned to New York in a few days. To me, I don’t care about the location. I can change jobs if I don’t like it anyway,” she said.

Job placement agencies all have their own lists of job openings around he country. Job applicants only need to briefly tell an agent his or her skills, and the agent can immediately match the applicant with an opening on the list. Then, the agent connects the applicant and the potential employer over the phone for an interview. Once they reach an agreement on the terms, the applicant can immediately go to work after he or she pays the $10 to $30 service fee to the agent.

Jimmy Cheng, chair of the United Fujianese American Association, has been in the U.S. for 38 years. He said there are more Chinese running small businesses but fewer undocumented Chinese in the U.S. than before. And fewer people like to do hard work. New immigrants learn the American culture quickly. Give them two to three years, they’ll know they can easily change jobs if they don’t like the current one. And some work only half a year and take the other half off. Facing the challenge of finding long-term workers, employers have started to change their management style, hoping to maintain workers.

For example, it’s very hard for restaurants to find kitchen assistants, who are generally paid lower. Some Chinese restaurants no longer hire under that category. They just generally look for people working in the kitchen. All the duties are evenly shared by everyone and all employees are paid at the same level.

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