Inside the Problems That Brought Workers to March on May 1

The May 1 demonstration aimed to defend the rights of workers and immigrants. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

A large gap separates the working class, disconnecting those who are paid a good salary (some better than others) or profits and benefits from people like Silvia, Adriana, Alastair, Pierre, Beatriz, Bárbara, María, José Francisco, Nereida, Carolina, Antonio, and a long list of names that we would not be able to fit in this article or in an entire book the way they deserve.

Many of them and others like them [attended] the immigrants and workers’ march on May 1.

They are people who clean, care for seniors and children, work at laundromats and carwashes, are in charge of wheelchairs at the airport, bake bread, wait tables at restaurants, or work as models. Some are freelancers, and others work by the hour. In this group, there are people who are creatives, screenwriters and producers in the growing reality-show industry, others drive for a living or are day laborers or work in the entertainment industry in the city that never sleeps.

The gap separating these people from the (increasingly cornered) middle class and the wealthy and the extremely wealthy was brought to light a few days ago when the Office of Labor Policy and Standards (OLPS) met with workers at LaGuardia Community College to have them share their experiences at work and exercising their rights.

The OLPS, a part of the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) since 2016, wanted to hear these testimonies to craft a report to allow the city to adopt guidelines for labor policy, “especially with the current administration in Washington,” said a press release published by the agency.

The testimonies heard by DCA Commissioner Lorelei Salas, Human Rights Commissioner Carmelyn Malalis, and Assistant Commissioner at the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs Kavita Pawria-Sánchez made them realize how much work remains to be done.

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“They adjust our minimum salary through tips. (…) The boss does not pay us what he owes us,” complained a nervous car washer in front of an audience that filed a large hall at the college. Sitting next to him, one of Tom Cat Bakery’s recently laid-off workers lamented that he lost his job after years working there due to an audit over work permits carried out by Donald Trump’s administration. “We are leaving with nothing. They barely want to give us a week’s pay for every year worked. We don’t think that’s fair.”

Santiago, a Staten Island day laborer, said in his testimony that, after finishing a construction job, the man who employed him accused him of stealing jobs from U.S.-born workers to avoid paying him and warned him that the president would come after immigrants like him.

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This uncertainty is also shared by fast food employees, who are barely able to make ends meet even after achieving a salary increase authorized by law. Like Pierre, they have seen their hours dwindle. “I fought for $15 per hour, and that was a victory, but now I only work 2 or 3 days a week,” said the young man, who got emotional when he shared with the audience that he was unable to support his girlfriend and their 4-year-old daughter on his salary and irregular schedule. They have been forced to move in with her family.

“I have asked for more hours but they won’t give them to me,” he explained, adding that he was not given his schedule enough time in advance to allow him to get another job or share the care of his daughter. Pierre lamented the disconnect between the responsibilities of company and its franchises.

Adriana Hughes, a retail store employee, was also unable to hold back the tears when she spoke about the way low salaries, underemployment, lack of benefits and irregular schedules, as well as an absence of even minimal empathy on the part of managers have “broken my spirit.” After describing a work accident in which she suffered burns in one of her arms, she concluded by saying: “You don’t expect this when they hire you.”

Emotions also overcame nannies Silvia and Beatriz when they told their stories. They were both abused by the families of the children they cared for, and one of the employers took advantage of the undocumented status of one of the nannies. Beatriz is being assisted by the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance in her fight to get paid for a number of worked hours she is owed, while Silvia narrated how she was fired via text message. “Although employers know that we need to work, they do not value our time or our labor.”

Another recently-fired worker named Antonio started his testimony by acknowledging the experiences of those who spoke before him. As he worked for 12 years at a laundromat, he saw his wage increase while his hours decreased, until a few days ago the owners told 10 of their employees to let the others know that they were closing the business. Just like that.

Other little-known professions, such as those making “reality” shows possible, have similarly poor work conditions, according to Alastair Bates. A member of the writers’ guild, he lamented that, as production companies make money and ratings, the truth is that, “in the reality TV industry, there is a race to the bottom of working conditions.”

Bates spoke about the long hours of work without overtime pay and manipulated call times, in addition to bad wages and benefits.

The light at the end of the tunnel, said some of the workers, is unionization. María went from offering her cleaning services with varying degrees of success at a Williamsburg street corner to working at a cooperative with the Worker’s Justice Project.

In Bárbara’s case, she joined a union. After working as an at-home caregiver for three years, she now has a contract and feels respected. José Francisco is another laborer who joined the laundry workers’ union, who make sure that employer comply with the rules, including work safety regulations. “I have visited other laundries where non-union immigrants work, and I have seen how other people lack benefits and endure demeaning treatment.”

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