S. Asian workers underpaid: Study

DRUM Executive Director Monami Maulik (l.-r.), DRUM member Kazi Fouzia and Bangladeshi writer Farhad Mazhar speak at the release of a study quantifying the abuses South Asian workers face in Queens. Photo by Rebecca Henely
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After more than a year of work, the Jackson Heights-based immigrant advocacy group Desis Rising Up and Moving released a report of South Asian low-wage workers in Queens last week that revealed a large majority of them are paid below minimum wage and get little to no benefits.

“The findings are pretty shocking,” said Lindsay Cattell, of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, which partnered with DRUM on the study. “Wage theft is rampant in the community.”

The report was titled “Worker Rights are Human Rights: South Asian Immigrant Workers in New York City.” DRUM Executive Director Monami Maulik announced its findings June 18 at the organization’s office, at 72-18 Broadway in Jackson Heights.

She said the study took a year and a half or more to complete and was culled from about 200 surveys, 10 in-depth interviews and seven focus groups. It focused on workers in Queens and whether or not they had been underpaid or faced discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

“This could be the first step in making sure there’s justice in the South Asian worker community,” Cattell said.

The principal findings were that South Asian low-wage workers were consistently underpaid. More than half of the sample said they were paid less than minimum wage, a number that went up to 83 percent among retail workers. Other findings were that 95 percent of South Asian workers do not have health insurance, 75 percent do not have paid sick days and made on average $5.03 less an hour than the average New Yorker. Many respondents said they were not allowed to take breaks on the job and one out of five said they faced workplace harassment.

“I could say that I can’t believe it, but I’ve heard the stories,” said Eno Awotoye, of the Retail Action Project, who spoke at the release of the study.

Two DRUM members shared their stories of being grossly mistreated at work. Pakistani Muslim immigrant Sameena Khan said she had a police officer customer demand her papers after hearing her speak in Urdu to a co-worker and had also been searched in the 34th Street-Herald Square subway station in Manhattan.

“Both of these incidents were humiliating and terrifying,” Khan said in an English translation of her speech.

Kazi Fouzia, a Bangladeshi-born seamstress, said at a job where she was paid the equivalent of $4.50 an hour that she was hit by a car and sustained six fractures while going between two of her boss’ stores for cloth. Since he threatened anyone with firing for calling 911, she had to take a taxi to the hospital and only received pain medication because she did not make the call and had no health insurance. When she went back to work the next day, she was fired for her injury.

City Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) and Shaharazade Tompkins-Lewis of the U.S. Department of Labor told the Desi community, which encompasses about 23 percent of undocumented immigrants in the city, that they are entitled to full payment of wages regardless of their immigrant status and that the Labor Department does not request status information when they make a complaint.

Maulik commended the Desi community for participating in the study and the announcement.

“It takes a lot of courage to come here and raise your voice and stand up,” she said.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4564.

Posted 6:25 pm, July 26, 2012
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