Workplace Discrimination Complaints on the Rise in New York

Ana Ruiz, from Guatemala, suffered discrimination at her workplace due to her national origin. (Photo by Zaira Cortes via El Diario)

Ana Ruiz’s $10,000 debt for crossing the Mexico-United States border led the Guatemala native to work in construction, as she could barely buy groceries with the $200 weekly salary she used to earn in a Brooklyn bakery.

A mother of three, Ruiz was hired during the first months of 2017 by a subcontractor’s foreperson. Having received no workplace safety training, she began working in demolition, in addition to working more than 48 hours for a weekly check of $300.

Still, her nightmare was not limited to the exhausting workdays and the job’s constant risks to her life. It was the discrimination she endured for her national origin that undermined Ruiz’s emotional and mental health.

“I hate Guatemalans,” was the phrase Ruiz heard her forewoman say constantly, a Mexican woman who continuously excluded her.

“She would not allow me to eat with my coworkers, saying that she didn’t want to eat her lunch with a Guatemalan nearby. The other workers were Mexican women, and she would favor them by giving me the heaviest work,” said the 38-year-old, who lives in Brooklyn. “I could not understand why a Hispanic woman would discriminate against another one. I was expecting her to feel compassion because we are both immigrants who crossed the border looking for a better life.”

“You have no rights”

Ruiz’s co-workers tried to defend her, but the threat of being laid off made the protest subside. She tried to persuade the forewoman to end the discrimination and harassment, to which she replied categorically: “You have no rights. Here, you are nobody.”

“It all got worse; it was intolerable. I let the managers and the people higher up in the company know, but nothing happened. No one did anything to help me,” said Ruiz. “Being Guatemalan is not an insult, the way the forewoman said it. No one deserves so much humiliation.”

After having a workplace accident in which she suffered back, knee and neck injuries, Ruiz filed a lawsuit.

“The physical pain does not let me sleep at night, but what hurts me the most is having remained silent in the face of so much abuse. I did not defend myself when I should have. I should not have allowed the discrimination to happen, and I should have complained early,” said Ruiz.

Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the Worker’s Justice Project (WJP), said that it is common for company owners to tell their forepersons to “bring workers to heel” in exchange for extra pay.

“If most workers are Latino, then a Latino foreperson will be more successful in maintaining control because they know their community. Unfortunately, this control can end up in abuse and discrimination,” said Guallpa. “When there is a lawsuit or a claim for compensation, owners try to place all the responsibility on the foreperson and defend themselves saying that they were not aware of the situation.”

Guallpa commented that workers’ advocates are trying to get the state and city to modify their rules to punish and impose penalties on subcontractors, contractors and developers for discrimination, wage theft and unsafe working conditions.

Protections against discrimination

New York City has some of the most forceful sets of laws against discrimination. The Human Rights Law protects all New Yorkers against discrimination and harassment in housing, the workplace and public places.

Under this rule, which the NYC Commission on Human Rights is in charge of enforcing, employers in New York may not discriminate job applicants or employees based on age, immigration status, national origin, criminal background, color, race, religion/beliefs or sexual orientation.

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The law also forbids discrimination based on credit history; salary history; gender identity; civil or marital status; pregnancy; military status as a current or former member; victim of domestic violence status, sexual violence or stalking; caregiver responsibilities or unemployment status.

According to the latest statistics published by the Commission on Human Rights, reports of discrimination in New York increased almost 60 percent in the recent years. In 2015, 5,296 complaints were recorded. In 2016, the agency received 8,330.

The commission closed 436 investigations in 2016, compared to 354 cases in 2015, an increase of almost 25 percent. Also, the number of open investigations went up some 30 percent, for a total of 883 last year.

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