Employment Agencies Leave Manhattan’s Chinatown

Employment agencies are leaving Manhattan's Chinatown. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

Employment agencies are leaving Manhattan’s Chinatown. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

Many Chinese immigrants who came to New York in the 1990s still remember the hustle and bustle on Eldridge Street, the so-called “street of employment agencies.” There were 30 to 40 employment agencies clustered there at the time. No longer. With Chinatown residents being pushed out and the influx of new immigrants from Fujian province slowing, the job placement industry on Eldridge Street has also been contracting.

Ms. Chen knows it. She once rented a counter at one of the employment agencies on Eldridge Street and did business there for more than 10 years. But at the end of last year, she wrapped up her business, sublet the space and retired. She said the business has been declining year by year. In the latest couple of years, she could only make four or five matches on the best days. Many other days she got no business at all.

Kenny Chan, chairman of the Chinese American Restaurant Service Association, said the heyday of employment agencies on Eldridge Street was in the 1990s through 2005. Back then, every Monday when most restaurants closed for a break the sidewalks of streets were filled with job seekers. Every employment agency was crowded and noisy. Such a scene is long gone.

Chan said at that time, 30 to 40 employment agencies operated in the area surrounded by the Triple Eight Palace, Market Street, and Eldridge Street, making this area the base for the employment industry in Chinatown. But now, only a few of them are left, scattered on Market Street and a small part of Eldridge Street. Considerably fewer job seekers still visit these agencies.

Mr. Huang, who runs a Chinese takeout restaurant in Brooklyn, said whenever he needed to hire someone, he would call the agencies. But the population of new immigrants, especially those from Fujian province, is much smaller compared to 10 years ago. So the labor pool of the agencies is smaller too. And many young immigrants don’t like to work in restaurants. Some job openings, such as cook, are hard to fill.

Mr. Huang said new immigrants from Fujian are more likely to be living in Brooklyn than Manhattan’s Chinatown because of the high rent there. So many businesses on East Broadway have followed and moved to Brooklyn, including the employment agencies. There are four or five newly opened employment agencies on Eighth Avenue [in Sunset Park] and their business seems good.

Mr. Chen, who runs a Chinese buffet restaurant in upstate New York, said the tightening enforcement on undocumented laborers is another reason for slowing business at employment agencies. He said about two or three years ago, federal immigration law enforcement conducted several raids on Chinese restaurants to crack down on the use of undocumented workers  and human trafficking. Several employment agencies on Eldridge Street were affected and suspended operations for a while. Some of these agencies eventually closed for good to avoid further troubles.

Mr. Chen said employment agencies on Eldridge Street mainly cater to immigrants from Fujian province. And their job listings are almost all from Chinese restaurants run by Fujian immigrants. In the recent years, Fujian immigrants who arrived earlier have been moving out of Chinatown, and there are fewer newcomers. In addition, the Chinese restaurant industry has been suffering a downturn. Many restaurants have closed over the past year or two, so job openings in this sector are scarcer.

Xing Geng, who runs an employment agency in Flushing, said the major problem for peers in Chinatown is the dearth of new immigrant laborers there. Most new immigrants live in Flushing and Sunset Park now, so there are more and more employment agencies in those neighborhoods.

Geng also noted that, compared to the agencies in Chinatown, the agencies in Flushing mainly offer jobs in New York City. They don’t often have openings outside the five boroughs. But because of the tighter immigration enforcement, the long distance of traveling, and the lack of a Chinese cultural atmosphere elsewhere, many immigrant labors don’t like to work outside the city any more.

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