Eating Their Hearts Out

The rag-tag army of shadowy, often undocumented, workers in America.


If your house is on fire, you run out and call 911. But when Sharda (name changed), who lives in Richmond Hill, Queens, accidentally caused a blazing fire in her kitchen while making parathas, she frantically used flour, water and an old blanket to put out the flames that could have burnt her house down.


“She did not want to call the fire department because there are eight other people who live in her house and nobody has any papers,” says Chandra Bhatnagar, director of AALDEF’s South Asian Workers’ Project for Human Rights (SAWPHR).

Sharda, 65 and diabetic, is a member of a family of illegal immigrants, part of a rag-tag army of shadowy, often undocumented, people not often acknowledged by affluent Indian Americans as part of their community. They live on the margins, working ungodly hours on below minimum wages, almost not breathing in order to avoid detection.

In recent years Indians have been publicly touted and toasted as upwardly mobile and highly educated, with ivy league and IIT credentials. They are among the most affluent, most educated and fastest growing group in the United States, boasting the highest median household incomes of any ethnic group in the United States, including Whites. But these impressive statistics mask the real crisis among the impoverished segments of the community, especially among blue collar workers in large metro centers, such as Chicago, Illinois, Los Angeles and Houston.

Consider New York. The city’s Indian American population – the second-largest Asian American group in the city – has more than doubled during the past decade and comprises principally of recent immigrants, concentrated in Queens. More than three-quarters of Indian Americans in New York City are immigrants, almost twice the proportion of other city residents.


According to a community profile prepared by the Asian American Federation of New York, almost one in five Indian American New Yorkers – that is 35,666 people – live below the poverty line. Half the Indian American adults in the city have only a post-secondary education. More than a quarter of Indian American adults in the city have not graduated from high school and 13 percent have not even completed ninth grade. The 2000 Census counted 250,000 South Asians in New York, but community activists argue that is a significant undercount.

The missing people, Bhatnagar says, are disproportionately less educated, less English speaking, less documented and less likely to be aware of their rights and more likely to be discriminated against and exploited in their place of work.

That’s a huge community of invisible people. Let’s meet a few of them…

Dining out at a restaurant may be heavenly, but sometimes, backstage, the lives of the cooks, waiters, busboys and washers can be something straight out of hell.

Ask Mahesh Sharma. This Mumbai native left India with his wife and children in 1990 for a better life in America and became yet another nameless cog in the bustling restaurant scene in Manhattan.

Fourteen years later, at the age of 44, he says, he is still illegal, still without health insurance, still working 90 to 100 hours weekly, often without overtime pay.

The irony, he claims, is that thrice his labor certification has been approved, and each time the restaurant owner balked at paying him on the books and fired or let him go. Sharma agonizes over the $5,000 fees he paid the lawyers each time, the wasted time and effort. Every five years he seems to be back on square one, no closer to achieving legal status, struggling with low pay and long hours.

This last time, he alleges in a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court, the sponsoring restaurant not only declined to sign his labor certification, but also held back three weeks of salary and hrefused to return the security deposit Sharma had to give when he started on the job.

In his lawsuit, Sharma alleges, that while the prevailing wage for a chef of his skill was $19 per hour in 2001, he was paid less than the federal and state minimum wage. Throughout his employment, he claims, he never received worker overtime pay and could be summoned to work any time of the day or night. On a day that he had a tooth extracted, he alleges, he was required to return to work on the same day.

Says Sharma: “For three years they worked me like a slave. I had no papers, that’s why they used me. They pay me dishwasher’s money, and I’m a chef. My life has drifted away.”


His 14 years in this country have emboldened him to try to finally have his voice heard. He says, “I’m not stealing. I’m working hard. These owners are Indians. It’s not like they came from the moon. It’s Indians treating their own fellow Indians like this. They should be guiding us on how to get one step ahead.”

With the help of Andolan, a worker’s advocacy group based in Jackson Heights, and the NYU Immigrants Rights Clinic, Sharma filed a lawsuit against a Manhattan restaurant for back wages and overtime.

Krishnan Chittur, attorney for the defendants, asserts Sharma’s lawsuit is meritless. “We completely concur with professed goals of organizations such as Andolan and Immigrant Rights’ Clinic to ensure compliance with minimum wage and other laws by businesses. But they have commenced this action without proper investigation. When the truth concerning Mr. Sharma’s employment is uncovered during these legal proceedings, they will be embarrassed, if not shocked, at what actually happened.”

The facts in this case will likely play out in a federal courtroom in New York.

Whatever the outcome of Sharma’s case, however, community activists assert, thousands of other undocumented workers are vulnerable and frequently exploited.

Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY), a restaurant workers advocacy group formed to assist displaced workers from Windows on the World, which was destroyed in the World Trade Center attacks, surveyed over 500 workers in the restaurant industry.


According to Saru Jayaraman, director of ROC-NY, nearly 70 percent of the restaurant workers in New York are immigrants and 35 percent of them are undocumented. The survey found that about 16 percent of the workforce makes below minimum wage; 56 percent of those who work more than 40 hours a week do not receive proper overtime payments and a whopping 75 percent of the industry does not have health insurance.

“It is an industry with a lot of immigrants who are very vulnerable to abuse and exploitation,” Jayaraman says. “The employers are able to get away with whatever they want partly because there is no union presence or organizing presence in the industry, with nobody to defend the workers.”

Sharma, who has worked in several different restaurants over the years, says the the exploitation is widespread. He says: “I’ve seen a lady fainting in the kitchen, making chapattis all day. There’s no air-conditioning or even proper exhaust fans, you sweat, you have to change your clothes three-four times.”

Sharma claims that thousands of undocumented immigrants who are being abused do not come forward because they are afraid they will be thrown out or handed over to the police.

Almost all the workers in the ROC-NY survey said they had been burnt or cut on the job. By law restaurants are required to have workers compensation insurance for accidents like that, but according to Jayaraman, many restaurants don’t provide it.

“So when accidents happen, they fire the workers or send them home, and the workers have no way to pay the hospital bills,” she says. “It’s a very high-risk job. There are not only kitchen dangers, but also repetitive stress injuries for waiters who can get back disorders from carrying heavy trays.”

Some employers prefer undocumented workers because they can keep them on a short leash. Dangling the promise of sponsorship, they manage to get unlimited hours at below minimum wage. And the abuse is not only at small hole-in-the-wall eateries, but sometimes at some of New York’s finest dining spots.

“Go to Iraq, die over there!” “You’re sending money to Al Qaeda,” were some of the taunts that Abdul Hamid, who is Bangladeshi, says were hurled at him at a swanky restaurant, where he worked as a food runner, between the kitchen and the waiters. He says he was taunted as a terrorist and ultimately fired. The restaurant rejects Hamid’s charges of discrimination and racial taunts.


Jayaraman says there is a definite demarcation line in many upscale restaurants, where the front waiters are white and all the back waiters are immigrants – Latinos, Bengalis, Moroccans. “It’s like a front of the bus, back of the bus segregation situation,” she says.

“Restaurant owners will openly admit this is a common practice in the industry. They will take young white actors and students and without any experience put them upfront immediately and they’ll have immigrants who have been working in the restaurant for 20 years sometimes, have all the experience, and may even have trained the white workers and they will be kept at the back. They don’t want them interacting with the wealthy clients or getting the big tips.”

So while wait staff and bartenders get excellent salaries and working conditions, with some making $100,000, the median annual salary for restaurant workers is $20,000. Workers on the lower end can struggle on less than minimum wage with no overtime or benefits.

During the last 10 years some of the toniest restaurants have become part of corporate conglomerates, mini empires that really wield the most power in the industry, with very successful restaurateurs owning seven or eight very high cost restaurants in New York city. “We decided to focus on improving conditions in those restaurant empires as a way of signaling to the rest of the industry that they had to clean up their act,” says Jayaraman.

ROC-NY is lobbying for a bill in the New York City Council that would strip the operating license of any restaurant that violates labor, minimum wage or overtime laws, or discriminates or fails to provide worker’s compensation insurance.

Chuck Hunt, executive vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association (NYSRA), denies that the exploitation of restaurant workers is endemic. “There are 23,000 full service operations in New York. 99.9 percent are responsible operators. There might be a very small percentage that don’t follow the rules, that exploit people and do bad things, but it’s very, very slight compared to the total number. Yes, sure there is a bad apple or two here, just as there is in any other business.”

He points out that NYSRA instructs its members in the law and urges that they comply with it, and that goes for immigration and the worker documentation rules as well. He adds, “All responsible restaurant operators operate under the laws of the U.S. and they obey them. There are certainly, no question about it, people who don’t operate in that manner and our industry does not encourage it.”

Hunt notes that while the law does not require that a business provide health insurance or benefits, many still offer it to attract and retain good workers. He gives the example of Red Lobster, which provides full health benefits from the very first day of employment even though it’s not unionized: “It’s the decision of the owner and the business.”

Advocacy groups like ROC, Workers’ Awaaz and Andolan are trying to educate the workers about their rights, but as Jayaraman points out, many workers are just too intimidated to take on the system: “We need at least three people to come forward from a restaurant to start a campaign. We are looking to change the industry, make a change in the restaurant and not just help individuals. Workers come in from Indian restaurants, but they are too afraid to form a group. That happens time and time again.”

Sometimes a calamity pushes them to take a stand, such as when several South Asian workers at a Queens restaurant arrived for work one morning to find the door padlocked, as the owners had left for India. 
Not only were they not paid their wages, but many also claimed they lost almost $100,000 they had loaned, along with several other small businessmen, to the owners to buy the building as an investment. The workers says they had been told that once the building was purchased, they would be able to live there.

The workers turned to Andolan for help, and the director, Nahar Alam, worked in collaboration with Asian American Legal Defense Fund’s (AALDEF) South Asian Workers’ Project for Human Rights (SAWPHR), a legal services project for low wage South Asian workers.

“Restaurant workers and construction workers are probably the two largest groups that we work with,” says Chandra S. Bhatnagar, staff attorney at AALDEF and director of SAWPHR: “The conditions for restaurant workers, especially in the South Asian community, are very bad. We try to work with the workers to bring cases in court against the employers or to pressure the employers through demonstrations and public education campaigns.”

He points out that the employers create a dependent relationship with the workers where some money is held back and workers have to keep working just to make enough to eat and to recoup the money that is owed: “It’s a very abusive relationship and it’s very easy for the employers to get away with it.”

Ataur Rehman, a Bangladeshi banquet waiter at the legendary Windows on the World for 20 years, has quite a different story. In this perfect place he made a good salary, got great tips and was part of the union. By sheer luck, he was off duty when the WTC bombings occurred, first in 1993 and then again in 2001.

But life changed completely on 9/11. He was supposed to report to work at 10.30 a.m. and as the towers fell, he watched on television, stunned, as the place he had worked for 20 years, disappeared before his eyes. A hrefugee who fled war in Bangladesh, he has been traumatized again by his close calls in WTC and the death of 73 of his co-workers, and is on disability for emotional problems.

Now, thanks to ROC-NY, Rehman may soon be the owner of his own restaurant. The organization has located investors and is launching a co-operatively owned restaurant with 40 workers displaced from the WTC restaurants, in which they will lend only sweat equity but will share the profits.

Says Jayaraman: “This will serve as a model to the industry to show them that you can treat your workers well and pay them well and still make a profit. It would also create a new group of owners who are actually workers who could advocate within the owner’s lobby for greater workers rights.”

While Ataur Rehman’s ship might finally come in with the opening of this dream restaurant, for the majority of New York’s undocumented restaurant workers it is still a long, unending night without decent pay or benefits.

Sharma says ruefully, “I came here to make my life brighter and it’s like being in a dark room. I don’t see the future.”

Prisoner in Four Walls

Surya’s (name changed) youngest child was only two years old when she left her five children and husband in Bangalore, to work as a domestic worker in Kuwait. The tantalizing promise of $2,000 a month made her join a diplomat and his family who were headed for New York. Once there, she claims she was a virtual prisoner who had to work from 6 a.m. to late night, looking after the children, cooking and cleaning. Her salary was $200 a month and when she questioned her employers, they told her that even a big officer in India wouldn’t get $2,000.

If her children or husband called from India, she says, she was often not allowed to speak with them, and sometimes her employers wouldn’t even give her their letters. She recalls, “I was never allowed to leave the building alone. For four years I couldn’t leave the house.”

Surya was accountable for every minute of her time to the mistress of the house, and claims she was often beaten and abused. “I had to keep my grief and my pain to myself. I had no one here,” says Surya. “I did this to make a better life for my husband and children.” In the meantime, her husband passed away and she did not have the money to return.

She never had access to her passport, which was kept locked. On the day before the family was to return to Kuwait for a vacation, she found it on a table in the bedroom and while the couple was out, she grabbed it and jumped into a taxi, without a bag or belongings. The driver was from India and after hearing her story took her to a Hindu temple in Queens.

At the temple she found asylum and for a year she stayed there and in return cooked the daily food. Gradually, through interaction, she found a job as a babysitter and also a lawyer to take up her case. Now she works two jobs, shares an apartment with a roommate and through Andolan, the workers’ advocacy group, she has found support: “I am not alone anymore because they are there to help me.”

Andolan, working with New York Asian Women’s Center’s CRT (Community Response to Trafficking) project, has applied for a T-Visa for her, which provides a legal status to victims of trafficking. Says Tenaz Dubash, co-ordinator of the CRT’s South Asian program: “CRT works in each community with a co-coordinator and organizers to develop a community specific response to trafficking, because each community has a different dynamic to trafficking.”

Human trafficking is a form of modern day slavery where workers are lured by false promises and then forced to work as agricultural laborers, sex workers, domestic workers or as bonded labor in sweat shops and factories. According to the State Department, 18,000 to 20,000 individuals are trafficked into the United States annually.

Once Surya’s papers come through, she hopes to be reunited with the children who have grown up in her absence; two of the daughters have even got married. Her youngest daughter was only 2 when she left. Now she is 10.

Few people who qualify for the T-visa actually know about it. South Asian, Russian, Mexican and Chinese communities are particularly vulnerable to trafficking and are termed at risk groups.

Nadra Qadeer, director of Safe Horizon’s anti-trafficking program, recalls receiving a call from a man who said that his aunt, a domestic worker, was being held by her employers against her will. She had been brought in and for 12 years had never been allowed out of the house alone.

Says Qadeer, “People who are being held for many years in a house – how do they take the subway, when they are free how do they learn to live here?” Safe Horizon’s program for victims of trafficking helps them to get adjusted and find housing, a lawyer and a support system.

Then there are scores of domestic workers who came here willingly enough and so do not qualify for the T-Visa, but still undergo the indignities of low pay, employer abuse and long hours of work without overtime. Many domestic workers subsist in difficult working conditions, isolation and labor all hours of the day and night, sometimes at below minimum wage.

All too often, the abuse is by employers who are educated and affluent and are from the same community as the workers. The horror stories are many, of domestic workers being made to sleep in unheated basements and given unending tasks at all hours of the day, with no free time. Organizations like Andolan and Workers Awaaz help these workers become aware of their rights and sometimes sue their employers for abuse and back wages.

The Scaffolding of Dreams

Imagine working on a construction site in a blasting area without a hard hat or on a platform three or four stories high on scaffolding without a safety harness. These incidents have happened to Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers in the construction industry, and have sometimes resulted in injury.

“We see workers with back, head and leg injuries. And because so many of them don’t have papers, they don’t have medical care,” says Bhatnagar. “Sometimes they go to the emergency room to get treated, but the employer will not pay for any injuries they undergo.”

Many South Asians are employed in the construction industry as day laborers and an injury can be double jeopardy for the worker, because without work, he doesn’t get paid. A day laborer is hired by the day, and a rainy day means a day’s wages lost. Adds Bhatnagar: “Last year for some reason there was a lot of rain and so many workers had many days they couldn’t work and so the price of labor went down.”

Chaumtoli Haq, an attorney with MFY Legal Services, represents low income workers and has worked with a number of community organizations. She says that although construction workers are unionized, they have few South Asian members. Most South Asian construction workers, she says, labor in non-union workplaces and on private residential jobs. Construction work is done by contractors and subcontractors; the subs-contractors are generally South Asians, but the general contractors are not.

“Non-payment of wages is the typical problem,” she says. “In one case, a group of workers worked on a city funded project where the law requires higher wage, but the workers were not paid. We brought a complaint through the City Comptroller’s Office and were able to recover their wages.”

Mohammad Kamal Passa, a 49-year-old construction worker from Bangladesh, has seen the rough side of the industry. Since he speaks only Bengali, Urvashi Sen, a Columbia Law School graduate who volunteers with SAWPHR, translated for him.

“Construction work is a very hard job,” he says. ” Workers have a lot of injuries, a lot of times people get injured in accidents, or even killed. I too have had a lot of injuries on my jobs, one time a bone in my foot was crushed.”

Sometimes the contractors had insurance and would pay the medical bills, but occasionally some would not: “One time I got metal stuck in my eye and my hand, and it was bleeding a lot. The contractor I worked for said he would give me money for the treatment, but he didn’t give me anything. I had to pay for it.”

He concedes that while there are good employers out there, some are really bad.

One contractor he worked with never paid him, each month promising that he would pay him the following month, he says, until the amount had snowballed to $35,000. He filed a case through SAWPHR in 2001 as a result of which, he says, he recovered $24,000 in a settlement three years later.

Passa says that contractors pay workers from the money they get from developers, and some “when they get paid, they use the money to buy their own houses and cars and they don’t pay their laborers.”

SAWPHR combines litigation with community organizing and policy work too, and has seen a range of worker from janitors to street vendors, gas station attendants, domestic workers and restaurant staff. Low wages and long hours are endemic.

“The conditions are very bad because many of the workers don’t have documentation, frequently they don’t speak English and they are not necessarily aware of their rights as workers,” says Bhatnagar. “We work with them to pressure the employers through public demonstrations and legal action, and also educate the workers themselves through outreach in partnership with community organizations.”

While the Indian American community is seen as very successful, Bhatnagar cautions against assuming that they are the majority and representative of the community: “People are janitors and street vendors and we shouldn’t fool ourselves to believe, like many successful members of the community would want to, that everyone is a doctor, or an engineer or in IT.”

However, this abuse of undocumented and low wageworkers is by no means limited to the South Asians. It is equally widespread among Mexican, Dominican, Hispanic and other immigrant communities, which have even a higher proportion of blue collar workers. It is part of a larger pattern and South Asian community activists are striving to join forces with other workers, crossing the cultural and racial divide.

Racial profiling and police harassment have always been problems for people of color, but Sept. 11 has made it even harder for low income South Asian workers, because in this new belligerent atmosphere they are even more fearful of coming forward to speak out against the exploitation.

“Immigrant communities are always at risk for discrimination and historically have been,” says Alex Reinert, an attorney with Koob and Magoolaghan, a civil rights law firm that has represented several workers.

“New immigrants are often concentrated in low wage industries. It is always a problem in terms of the power that they have to challenge unfair decisions made by their employers. Their access to justice and remedies when they are treated unfairly has always been a difficult issue.”

The good news is that young South Asians, some of whom are graduates of ivy league law schools, are coming to the aid of low wage workers in their community through voluntary partnerships with worker advocacy groups.

The construction worker Mohammad Kamal Passa is a beneficiary of one such alliance. He says: “Most workers in the construction industry have no knowledge about where to go and how to get their money. If more and more people help, maybe the bad contractors will get scared and stop cheating their workers. Then they will know that they can’t cheat us because there are those out there who care to help us.”  

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