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Sweat & Sour

Trade Unions
United States

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Sweat and sour
'Undocumented' Chinese people in New York think of their work as being rather like
military service. Now, reports Matthew Reiss, they're getting organized instead.

From inside a steel-shuttered storefront comes a sound resembling bees. A Cantonese woman picks a pattern from a bale of freshly cut polyester. She puts it on her sewing machine and jabs the safety catch with her knee. Guides the fabric and jabs the safety catch. She pushes a pedal with one bare foot and the needle pours white thread into the fabric. She drops it on a pile. Picks another. Hits the safety...

‘This is what they call a sweatshop,’ says state labour inspector Vince Cardillo. ‘Because it’s hot.’

Electric fans stir the humid air. Polyester fibres float like pollen. One woman wears a cotton patch over her lips and nostrils. Vince tells the smartly dressed boss lady to get out the registration and payroll records. In a red-plastic Buddhist shrine, burning joss sticks protect the workers and bless the fire exit. It’s bolted shut. Lu looks up from her machine. She’s from the Chinese community in Peru.

‘The work is much better there,’ she tells me.

‘What the hell are you telling him?’ thunders the boss lady.

Lu gets the message. A labour inspector comes over and questions her.

‘I make 80 to 100 dollars a week,’ she lies, unaware that twice her salary is still less than the legal minimum of $4.25 an hour.

Like so many other immigrants in New York’s Chinatown, Chow’s emigration to America didn’t require a decision. ‘America is like military service,’ he says. ‘Everyone between the ages of 18 and 45 does it.’

For 18 months Chow was illegal in seven countries. He ran from border guards in Vietnam; dodged bullets in Cambodia; got arrested twice in Thailand; was led back to Cambodia and got a plane ticket to Moscow. He was detained at the airport and later turned back at the German border. He finally got to New York on a flight from Kiev. On the plane he tore up his fake Taiwanese passport and flushed it over the Atlantic.

‘Smuggling will never end as long as there’s a need for cheap labour,’ says Wing Lam of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association. ‘I think the people in power believe that the only way to save America is to have slave labour. They want cheap labour to “out-compete” Third World countries.’

Lam Wing is a soft-spoken, diminutive figure who earned the right to make strong statements when he took on the Chinatown restaurant industry and won. In 1993 his group picketed for seven months and won a contract from the Silver Palace, at that time Chinatown’s biggest restaurant.

After winning the Silver Palace battle, the Association’s hunger strikes and months of picketing managed to chip away at another of Chinatown’s biggest institutions, the Jing Fong Restaurant. But when Jing Fong was fined $1.5 million in back wages by the New York State Attorney General, a bomb was detonated at Lam Wing’s headquarters.

Still the effort continues. UNITE, the combined Amalgamated Clothing and Textile and International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ unions, has brought together 500 sweatshop workers and family members. They gather at 60th Street and Eighth Avenue – one of New York’s four Chinatowns – carrying signs that read: ‘Enforce Minimum Wage Laws.’

The procession starts down Eighth Avenue past a sweatshop, where workers peer out between steel shutters to see what the commotion is about. Marchers shout ‘No pay, no way’ in English, Spanish and Cantonese, and the workers respond with cheers and raised fists.

The demonstrators slow down and raise their voices near a big sweatshop so people inside can hear. It works. A dozen workers rush to the window. Their curious glances turn to smiles as they point and turn to their colleagues to show what’s going on outside. But they can’t join in. Risking their job would be risking their family’s lives. For them America is just an extension of China.

Competing with poor workers in countries without labour laws has helped force immigrants in the restaurant and garment industries into poverty, explains UNITE’s political director, Nick Unger. But it doesn’t end there. Undocumented workers are turning up in construction, in white-collar posts in the school system, in computer-programing positions in banks, creating downward pressure on wages.

A walk down nearly any street in this part of New York would be a good way to see what’s coming.

Matthew Reiss covers human rights in New York and
abroad and can be reached at [email protected]

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New Internationalist issue 341 magazine cover This article is from the December 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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