By Anthony D. Advincula

New America Media

Aug 03, 2009

NEW YORK CITY — Clemente Rodriguez, 32, is a shoe bagger in a retail store in Manhattan’s upper east side. He stands all day long in the storage area, carries heavy loads of shoes and works nearly 14 hours a day for which he is paid $35 and with no overtime or other benefits.

His story of abuse and exploitation in the workplace may not be uncommon. Rodriguez, a documented immigrant, knows what is due to him. He also knows about the recent increase in New York’s minimum wage. But this time he’d rather remain tightlipped than lose his job in the economic downturn.

Rodriguez, according to some advocacy groups, is among an escalating number of workers, at least in New York, who may be aware of their labor rights but choose to bear harsh working conditions for fear of joining the ranks of the unemployed.

From retail shops and restaurants, to construction sites and bodegas, this new phenomenon driven by the economy is another front in the battle to protect workers’ rights. Many undocumented immigrants, say advocacy groups, fearing deportation if they speak up, keep their heads low and work for a pittance.

“It’s like another layer has been added to the challenges that workers face each day,” said Rajesh Nayak, attorney for the National Employment Law Project (NELP), during an ethnic media press conference hosted by the New York Community Media Alliance on July 27. ”The recession has certainly exacerbated these challenges, and our allies working on the ground could attest to it.”

Gonzalo Mercado, a program director of El Centro de Hospitalidad in Staten Island, NY, agreed that many workers, especially from immigrant communities, seem to have been forced “to work for less money” as the downturn worsens, and disregard violations of minimum wage and overtime pay rules.

“We’ve seen these cases now in different places,” he said, “and the number is growing.

However, any employer who pays workers below the minimum wage—recession or not— is violating the law. “The compliance with labor laws is not optional, but it is obligatory,” said Terri Gerstein, deputy commissioner of the New York State Department of Labor.

On July 24, New York’s minimum wage increased from $7.15 to $7.25 per hour. The 10-cent raise was considered a “modest” victory hailed by advocacy groups and labor unions.

Even workers who largely rely on tips, Gerstein said, should earn at least the minimum wage. “If the tip the worker gets is below $7.25 per hour, then the employer must compensate them. No workers, including the undocumented, should get $3 an hour because that’s the only tip they got.”

Maritere Arce, director of the Bureau of Immigrant Workers Rights, said that recent studies show that the state’s minimum wage increase would benefit more than three million immigrants who in turn contribute about $299 billion to New York’s economy each year.

Aware that undocumented immigrant workers are the most vulnerable to abuse, Arce pushed for their protection. “They fear the government,” she said. “They fear the sharing of information among governmental agencies. There could also be a language barrier. It’s a real challenge, but help us spread the word and count on us in any initiatives that we take.”

Gerstein highlighted three specific initiatives to combat labor violations: enforcing the law and educating both employers and workers about their rights; urging workers, in case of labor violations, to talk to their co-workers, always gather pay slip of hourly wages, and take action; and getting full support from the public.

“We need collaboration to enforce the law,” she added. “Now we have 54 bilingual investigators out of 115 in the nation.”

But Rodriguez said that it may be easy to expose the wrongdoings of his employer, but there’s no guarantee from government agencies to provide for his family if he files a complaint against his employer and loses his job.

“I know that it is important and it will help us someday. It is good for the government’s record, but not for my family,” he said, rushing his lunch to finish stacking hundreds of shoe boxes more at the storage. “If I don’t have a job, what will happen now? I think it’s still better to have a small income, overcome my hardships, and make sure that I’ll bring food to our table.”


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