Slaves of New York

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EDWARD BARNESAutumn in New York may be inviting to most visitors to the city, but the approach of winter is ominous for the transients inhabiting a fourth-floor walk-up on the Bowery. In the heat of summer, a few at least are able to sleep on the fire escapes and the roof of the building--avoiding for a moment the circle of hell they have been assigned. The cramped and airless space within is subdivided into 32 cubicles doled out to at least 100 men. The stink of sweat, unwashed clothing, old shoes and garbage suffuses the narrow makeshift corridors. Cooking noises mingle with the gurgle of kitchen-side urinals. On tiny TV sets, a few men watch home videos of kin and country long left behind, for some as much as a decade ago. Others stare at the distant passion of porn tapes smuggled in from the old homeland. Each night the sounds of aching and loneliness drift down to the streets of Chinatown.The Bowery warren is just one of scores set up to house illegal immigrants from China, men and women smuggled in to work in the teeming sweatshops and restaurants of New York City's many Chinatowns. Here we live like pigs and eat like dogs, says Son Li, 66, who arrived four years ago and works 12-hr. shifts seven days a week as a clothes hanger in a sweatshop on Lafayette Street, a few blocks away from the Bowery barracks. He says he makes about $1 an hour, when his employer pays. He has paid dearly for the privilege of working in America.Most of the illegals have forked over as much as $48,000 each to gangsters in order to get to America. They are part of a wave from China's coastal Fujian province; no one knows what their real numbers are. Every now and then a boat stuffed with human cargo will wash up on a beachfront community. But many other landings go undetected. Police estimate there are 300 gang-run safe houses where illegals live as they prepare to enter the workplace. New York City's Fujian association estimates there are 500,000 illegals from the province in the U.S.; the CIA puts the undocumented influx at 100,000 a year. (In comparison, the 1990 U.S. Census estimates there are 2.3 million American residents of Chinese origin.) What is certain is that for reasons both global and local, the illegals, their transporters and their employers are forgoing the boomtowns of the West Coast and homing in on New York City.There are two reasons that New York has turned into a magnet for Chinese illegals: first, the collapse of labor-law enforcement in the city; and second, a frantic attempt by the area's garment industry to remain competitive with Third World rivals. The garment industry has always been the heart of Chinatown's economy. More than 400 garment sweatshops, often situated in hidden lofts and garrets, turn out clothes for most of the nation's major retailers. Wing Lam, head of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, concedes that Chinatown has always been a haven for illegals and sweatshops, but he says things have taken a very bad turn. The West Coast has better wages, and the living conditions are better, he says. But the labor laws there are enforced more strictly. The immigrants come to New York because it is lawless. The 1986 immigration act made employers responsible for hiring undocumented aliens, ceding the New York garment industry to the criminals who take advantage of illegals too afraid or unable to complain. Today, he says, it is common for sweatshops to withhold eight weeks' pay from workers who have no government agency to turn to for help. Says Lam: Those few who do complain find that an agreement of understanding between the Labor Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service means that anyone who complains about wages or working conditions will be deported. It has created a plantation system where bosses can do virtually anything to workers without fear of penalty.Manufacturers contend they must find ways of going around the law in order to meet the demands of retailers who place the orders. Says Kenny Lee, head of an apparel association: Five years ago, manufacturers would pay $4 to have a shirt that sold for $24 manufactured. Today they offer half, and if you don't take it, someone else will. There are no more big orders of thousands of garments. Those now go overseas. Instead, we get 'rescue orders,' clothes that must be in the stores in a few days, often no more than 200 pieces. It is not enough to survive on, but we have no choice. All New York has left is turnaround time. As a result, says Lam, Garment shops will no longer hire documented workers because employers find they can pay undocumented workers less and not fear complaints. Besides, they know these people have to work.New York's sweatshops are often small, nonunion operations with fewer than 20 sewing machines and manned almost exclusively with illegal aliens in Chinese enclaves like Sunset Park in Brooklyn or Flushing, Queens. According to Lam, a recent Department of Labor study found that 90% of the garment shops in Chinatown were in reality sweatshops. Most of the shops in New York, about 70%, according to Lee, are owned by ethnic Chinese; and 40% of their products go to two major buyers: Wal-Mart and K Mart. Virtually all pay by piece rate, and only a handful of workers are able to produce enough to approach the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. For most, the pay has dropped to $2 an hour or less. Work laws are no longer enforced, and crippling injuries have soared, says Peter Kwong, a professor who studies Chinatown.PAGE 1  |  
 
New York's sweatshops are often small, nonunion operations with fewer than 20 sewing machines and manned almost exclusively with illegal aliens in Chinese enclaves like Sunset Park in Brooklyn or Flushing, Queens. According to Lam, a recent Department of Labor study found that 90% of the garment shops in Chinatown were in reality sweatshops. Most of the shops in New York, about 70%, according to Lee, are owned by ethnic Chinese; and 40% of their products go to two major buyers: Wal-Mart and K Mart. Virtually all pay by piece rate, and only a handful of workers are able to produce enough to approach the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. For most, the pay has dropped to $2 an hour or less. Work laws are no longer enforced, and crippling injuries have soared, says Peter Kwong, a professor who studies Chinatown.In fact, these workers are lucky to get wages at all. Says Kwong: Employers know that the workers can't complain, so they withhold wages, claiming manufacturers were slow to pay. It has become standard practice to withhold six weeks' pay or more. The vast numbers of new arrivals have depressed wages throughout Chinatown 30% in the past five years. Dishwashing jobs, for instance, which once paid $800 a month, now pay $500.Most of the illegals are from rural districts where jobs are limited, and the temptations of China's already crowded cities--and America's streets of gold--are impossible to resist. They aren't prepared for the harshness of the life they find in New York City, according to Yung Fong Chan, a clergyman whose church serves the Fujianese immigrants. Mental illness and suicide have both become serious problems, he says. People, isolated from their families and forced to endure hardship they never imagined, just snap. Then there is the constant pressure from the gangs who brought them over and continue to see the immigrants as better guarantees of meal tickets than their old heroin trade. Twice in the past year, gang members surrounded the Bowery quarters, blocked the fire escapes, then calmly robbed the residents of their savings. The victims didn't complain, they said, because they feared retaliation against their families in China if they caused trouble for the gangs. Says one: We have no one to protect us. There is nothing we can do. We may as well be slaves.Government action has been minimal. In the past five years only a few sweatshop owners have been prosecuted for failing to pay workers. The government failure has created an even more lawless enclave. Local cops say that as the immigrants become more desperate for money, they often turn to crime. According to Tommy Ong of the New York police intelligence division, the sleazy employment agencies under the Manhattan Bridge that specialize in placing illegal immigrants in jobs around the country often misrepresent and oversell the type of work available. When workers return and can't pay off their immigration debt, the gangsters (or snakeheads) offer them a deal. The illegals describe their ex-employers' operation and return with shotguns and masks to rob the place with members of the gang. The debt is then canceled. Local police are usually stumped, but we know exactly what happens, says Ong. It has become a nationwide problem.Each tale is one of heartbreak. Yu Li says she cried for nearly a year after she was brought over to find a better life. She paid gangsters to get out of China three years ago to join her husband, who had illegally entered the U.S. in 1991. She paid the snakeheads money her husband had borrowed and sent over. Almost immediately after reaching New York, she began working 17-hr. days, seven days a week, at a local garment factory. But because she was new and the factory paid piece rate, she made only $1 an hour. Sometimes we had nothing for ourselves. I made less than $100 a week. She and her husband made so little money they couldn't afford to live together. He continued to sleep on the floor of the restaurant that employed him. She slept in a basement owned by relatives. Her husband would ask angrily, Why don't you work harder? But, says Yu, I couldn't work any harder.Yet the couple again dealt with the snakeheads in order to be reunited with the three children they left behind. The price: $132,000. It was a harrowing journey. Their 14-year-old son was separated from his sisters shortly after the journey began, abandoned in Cambodia when war broke out and stuck in a Vietnam jail until he bribed his way out with $500 he had stashed away. Relatives helped pay off the snakeheads, but each month Yu has to pay $3,000 on the debt. It is hard. We have nothing. Now they have fettered their children to their fate. The hardest thing, she says, is that I have had to make the children work. They should be in school, but we need the money they bring home. She sighs. It was never this hard in China.  |  2