Men at Work

This is the second story in a three-part series on the life of immigrant workers in New York CIty. Here is Part One, on Chinese delivery workers.

For ten months between October 2010 and August 2011, a Korean contractor named Bong Jun Park** hired a group of eight Latino construction workers to excavate the basement of a building in upper Manhattan. The workers were required to break the existing cement floor, excavate eight to ten feet of earth beneath it, and then pour cement for the new foundation. Many of the workers were undocumented, and none were unionized. 

According to the workers, they were not given the proper equipment required to carry out the work, as they say often happens on such sites. While the initial concrete floor was broken up with a jackhammer, the workers were required to use pickaxes and shovels to ply it out. The task of digging up the earth was done by hand.* There was not even a conveyor belt to carry out the buckets of excavated dirt. Instead, workers manually carried the buckets—hundreds of times a day—to the outside of the building where another worker raised them up by a pulley rope, emptied them into a wheelbarrow, and then hauled the dirt to a dumpster for disposal. An Ecuadorian worker, Felipe, who was employed at the site, says, “It’s convenient for the contractors that we do all of the work by hand, because it saves them a lot of money.”

The basement workers were required to work eight to ten hour days with an unpaid 30-minute lunch break. They were paid $10 per hour and no overtime, sick days, or vacations, often seven days a week. The contractors did not provide them with drinking water: If they needed water they had to buy a bottle of water at a nearby store. At lunchtime, the workers were not even given a place to eat, and they often turned over the buckets, using them as small tables to eat their food amid the dust and debris. Felipe points to the differences for unionized workers: “Union workers have a 15-minute break in the morning, lunch at midday, and another break in the afternoon. We can’t count on these benefits.”

The contractors did not employ a safety manager, and the workers were not given hardhats or protective glasses. The work produced large quantities of dust and debris, but the workers had no face masks. When city officials conducted safety inspections, protective gear was passed out to workers, but it was taken away as soon as the inspectors left. If the contractors were to provide masks to the workers on a regular basis, they would need to be replaced almost daily because of the amount of dust they collected, and the contractors refused to pay for this. The workers said that when they complained that they couldn’t work under these conditions, they were told by the contractors, “If you don’t want to work, that’s fine. You can leave.”

As they dug downward into the earth beneath the site, the workers found themselves in holes as deep as eight feet. Since the holes were not braced with planks, the workers were in danger of being buried by collapsing dirt.

What finally prompted the workers to seek legal counsel at the New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) group, a nonprofit in Jackson Heights, Queens, that helps workers advocate for their legal rights on the job, was when the contractors failed to pay the workers for two pay periods in June 2011. The workers protested outside the Bayside, Queens, residence of the company, and then they filed a lawsuit against the contractors, who have still not paid the back wages they owe. Wage theft has been a serious problem in the industry, especially over recent decades as nonunionized workers have entered the industry in large numbers. It was a serious enough issue that in June 2010 the New York state legislature passed the Wage Theft Prevention Act, which imposes serious penalties on employers who don’t pay their workers and protects workers against retaliation for reporting wage theft. The National Employment Law Project (NELP) has estimated that employers steal more than $18 million per week from low-wage workers in New York City alone, or nearly $1 billion per year.

Workers such as Felipe are often exploited within the construction industry, but subcontracting makes it difficult for them to fight back. The practice outsources jobs to labor contractors and agencies and creates several layers of middlemen, none of whom is fully accountable. When the basement workers protested outside the home of Bong Jun Park to demand their wages, he came outside and told the workers to go to the corporation who had hired him. That corporation in turn was contracted by the managers of the building where they worked. Middlemen are often not paid enough to adequately compensate their workers; they put in low bids to be competitive with other contractors, and the larger businesses get away with paying little for the work. But the middlemen themselves skim off as much as they can from the payments and often escape or claim bankruptcy to avoid paying what they owe workers.

Perhaps what facilitates much of this abuse are the immigration laws that create a large pool of undocumented workers without bargaining power. All of these organizations urge Congress to grant legal immigration status to undocumented immigrants, thereby giving them grounds on which to organize, join unions, and defend their rights. “Because of our situation,” Felipe says, “because of our status, we have to take whatever work we can get. This is the barrier we face.”

Subcontracting is not a new phenomenon. In their report on subcontracting, Catherine Ruckelshaus and Bruce Goldstein of NELP argue that early last century clothing manufacturers outsourced the functions of sewing and pressing garments to other entities in an effort to evade labor laws and suppress workers organizing. Yet subcontracting has expanded despite its negative impacts, and become worse for workers. The construction industry, like many other industries, has restructured to cut labor costs and increase profits by hiring casual laborers off the books without benefits or protections, and by misclassifying workers as independent contractors rather than as employees to circumvent labor laws. The construction labor pool is largely made up of poor, new immigrants often in the United States without documentation, who are drawn to the work because they can get it quickly and often do not have to provide the proper paperwork. Construction contractors take advantage of workers’ undocumented status to force them into accepting poor wages and conditions, verbal abuse, wage theft, and safety violations.

Contractors will often claim that their superiors aren’t paying them and that therefore, they can’t afford to pay workers’ wages. An Ecuadorian construction worker, Iván, says that when he worked a construction job at a bakery on the Upper East Side, his boss told him that the work had to be done cheaply as the bakery owner was not paying him much. It turns out that the bakery owner had compensated his boss well for the work. Santiago, another Ecuadorian construction worker, found out that on one job his employers were being compensated $53 per hour for each employee—but he was getting paid only $17 per hour.

Subcontracting has also become more complex, with several layers of intermediaries and intricate arrangements between them. In the case of the basement workers hired by Bong Jun Park, they were required to reach legal settlements with different parties separately and finally to direct a lawsuit toward Park’s company, Well-S Industrial, to demand the payment of back wages. “What we have is a ladder of power that can be used to further exploit workers as one employer passes on responsibility to the next,” says Adriana Escandon of NICE. “We need to hold each of the levels accountable.”

Another layer is that of predatory employment agencies, which claim to find day jobs for construction workers and sometimes charge a fee even if they do not find a job for the worker. Victor Carrera, an older Ecuadorian construction worker in Harlem, approached a local employment agency after many months of being out of work. They charged him $120 for guaranteed job placement, so he signed all of the paperwork and paid the fee. They found him a job in demolition, removing debris from a basement with no masks or facial protection and at $10 per hour. After three days, he earned $240, but he experienced respiratory problems from the dust exposure. He quit and returned to the agency, which he says told him it would only find him another job if he paid it 8 percent of what he had earned, even though this stipulation was not in the contract he had signed. He left in disgust, having already lost half of his earnings on the original fees to the agency.

Gerardo Llanque, a NICE member, says he paid $100 to an employment agency on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights but was given a false address for the worksite. When he went back to complain, the agency called the police on him and he was held overnight at the local precinct until they assigned him a lawyer, who advised him not to ask for the return of his money. When he later filed a complaint with the city, he was told that nothing could be done because the agency did not exist. The agency had simply closed down and stolen the fees that were paid by clients such as Llanque.

Conditions are so bad partly because of the economic downturn, which has produced fewer jobs at lower wages. Yet workers continue to come in large numbers across the border after long, often traumatic journeys. More and more workers reached out to NICE, and are seeking help from organizations that help fight for more workplace rights.

On a Wednesday evening in February, more than 30 Latino men squeeze into the small open meeting area of the NICE offices in Jackson Heights. They sit on metal foldout chairs, and lean against doorways, waiting for the workers’ committee meeting to begin. One of the organizers, a young Honduran-American woman named Jessica Garcia starts with an icebreaker where the men write the year they arrived in the States and where they came from on small squares of brightly colored paper. They attach the paper to a timeline she has drawn on the whiteboard.

Once the papers are all up, the group looks at the results. The majority of the men are from Ecuador and Mexico, but some are from Guatemala, Peru, and Colombia. “There are a lot of papers clustered around 2003 that all say Ecuador,” Garcia observes. “Did something happen that year in Ecuador to make you all leave?”

“Hunger,” one of them says half-jokingly, and the others nod in amusement and recognition.

On a sidewall are the papers from an earlier icebreaker. The men were asked to write about the things that concern them the most. The notes included issues like immigration status, supporting families back home, finding work, and making money. One cream-colored paper with small green writing stands out. It says, “I miss my kids.”

Among the strategies that organizations such as NICE and NELP support to counteract subcontracting is to require greater accountability from businesses by treating all employers as “joint employers.” They are also asking for more resources to police contractors and ensure that they do not violate the law. Workers’ participation in this is central, says Escandon: “Workers are recognizing their power as a collective and organizing to defend their rights against employers who have robbed their wages.”

The names of the workers used in this articles are pseudonyms because many are undocumented.

*A previous version of this sentence mistated the equipment generally used for excavating basements. 

**A previous version of this article misspelled the contractor's name.

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