By David Brand
White-collar professionals, freelancers and laborers from around New York City convened in Long Island City last night to discuss the state of workers’ rights.
The public hearing, which featured officials from the Department of Consumer Affairs, Citizens Commission on Human Rights and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, Council Member I. Daneek Miller and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, enabled employees to testify on the issues and barriers they face in the workplace. The forum specifically focused on the experience of foreign-born workers, especially undocumented immigrants, subjected to an atmosphere of fear and exploitation.
Ahead of the event, DCA Commissioner Lorelei Salas spoke with the Queens Daily Eagle about the rights of workers, including undocumented immigrants; the city’s employee resources and DCA’s plans to better protect workers, particularly low-wage and vulnerable workers, in the future.
“The purpose of the public hearing is to get input directly from communities [through] workers giving us their stories and providing testimony about the challenges they face in the workplace,” Salas told the Queens Daily Eagle. “We’re giving more space for workers to know that they can come to us and air their grievances, to tell us where we could be doing things differently and let us know what is working.”
Salas said a similar forum last year attracted a mix of workers, including undocumented immigrants who boldly shared their testimony even though it meant exposing their status.
The city does not ask workers about their immigration status when they file a complaint against an employer. The policy enables undocumented workers to come forward with less fear and helps the city hold employers accountable for any misdeeds, Salas said.
“When people are willing to come forward, it’s our job to make sure they know that the majority of city services are available,” Salas said. “We make sure that when workers are being retaliated against, we respond quickly to create culture of compliance [among employers].”
The city has received reports from immigrants who have been exploited and threatened by their employers, Salas said. The employers threaten to report them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they do not submit to substandard employment practices, she said.
Thus, some employers have managed to take advantage of aggressive immigration enforcement to frighten their workers, she said.
“We already had both workers and advocates talking about how nervous they were about speaking up about their rights,” Salas said. “Employers use a worker’s immigration status to put fear in workers [but] we fast-track any retaliation complaints that come into the office.”
In Queens, foreign-born residents make up almost half the population and a significant portion of the workforce.
“It’s important to send a message to the business community that you can’t retaliate based on immigration status,” Salas said. “That’s a violation of human rights law.”
In recent months, ICE has stepped up enforcement efforts across the city. In April, for example, the agency rounded up 225 immigrants with arrest histories, including residents of East Elmhurst and Jamaica, the Jackson Heights Post reported.
“The fact is that a so-called ‘sanctuary city’ does not only provide refuge to those who are here against immigration law, but also provides protections for criminal aliens who prey on the people in their own communities by committing crimes at all levels,” ICE New York Field Office Director Thomas R. Decker said in a statement. “ICE is committed to enforcing the immigration laws set forth by Congress with integrity, despite the push-back and rhetoric within the city they serve.”
During the George W. Bush administration, ICE conducted several large-scale raids at workplaces around the country, including prominent sweeps that resulted in the arrest of scores of undocumented immigrants in New England factories.
So far, Salas said, she has not heard of such large-scale workplace raids occurring in New York City. ICE has, however, conducted “workplace audits” to try to identify noncitizens who are not classified to work in New York City.
In response, Salas said the DCA and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs have taken a “proactive” approach to prepare for potential ICE actions and to investigate industries in which the exploitation of immigrant workers frequently occurs.
“We don’t want to get to a place where people are so afraid to come forward that they’ll tolerate a violation of laws,” Salas said. “Where we know there are industries with problems, we’re going to do industry-wide investigation and change standards in those industries.”
For example, she said, the DCA has conducted investigations into various home health aide agencies, which comprise one of the city’s fastest-growing sectors, according to the Center for Health Workforce Studies and the New York Times. In New York City, the home health aide industry employs tens of thousands of people to provide care for the elderly and people with disabilities. The agencies reap huge profits from health insurance companies and typically employ immigrant women, a marginalized population vulnerable to various forms of exploitation and abuse.
The city also prepares to address workplace issues by educating business owners about their responsibilities if federal law enforcement agents were to arrive at their property.
The National Employment Law Project and the National Immigration Law Center developed a handbook for businesses and employees called “What to Do If Immigration Comes to Your Workplace.”
According to the handbook, workers have the right to deny entry to ICE. The guide suggests that employees tell the agents, “I can’t give you permission to enter. You must speak with my employer.”
The guide also states that ICE agents “do not always have a right to enter [a] business, stop or arrest workers, or take documents.”
“No one can enter a private area of your business without your permission or a judicial warrant,” the guidebooks continues.
Salas said the city may begin reaching out to business owners to educate them about their rights in case of interactions with ICE.
“There are so many immigrant owners and so many businesses that rely on immigrant workers,” Salas said. “We are a city that is progressive and we value the work of immigrants.”