May 19, 2011
Learning rights matters for immigrant workers
In an effort to eliminate abusive treatment of immigrant workers, elected officials including Assemblyman Francisco Moya (D-Corona) helped educate communities across New York during the state’s Workers’ Rights Awareness Weekend.
Thanks to the Wage Theft Prevention Act, which went into effect on April 9, workers have new protections, which they were pleased to learn about last Saturday.
The act ensures minimum wage and proper overtime pay for all workers, increases penalties for abusive bosses, strengthens protection for workers who stand up for their rights and helps ensure the enforcement of labor laws.
It has been reported that unscrupulous employers in the city alone steal almost $1 billion from their own workers every year. They also evade taxes by paying workers off the books.
Additional legislation, the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, enacted in November, gives domestic workers the right to overtime pay and paid time off and entitles at least one day of rest per week.
The Construction Industry Fair Play Act, passed in October, tackles abuses in that industry, including the misclassification of employees as independent contractors. The illegal move allows employers to avoid paying taxes.
Advocates say these new laws are of particular import to immigrants in Queens, who often make up a large portion of the borough’s low-wage labor force and may not be aware of their rights due to language barriers.
At Make the Road New York in Jackson Heights, Moya joined immigrant's rights advocates to educate workers. While he was pleased to inform them of the new labor laws, he said more had to be done. “We still have to look at real help for immigration reform on the federal level. Getting the DREAM Act passed in congress should be at the forefront of their agenda.” The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would allow a pathway to citizenship for children who were brought to the United States illegally. It was voted down by the Senate in 2010 but was reintroduced on May 11.
State Sen. Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights), also at the event, took the opportunity to offer an impromptu lesson on the legal system to a group of immigrant students, primarily from South America, who have been attending citizenship classes. He urged them, upon becoming citizens, to vote.
Speaking in Spanish, Moya agreed, telling the group, “The most important thing you can do is participate in government. You bring us the messages that we can deliver up in Albany.”
Moya recounted his own father’s journey from Ecuador at the age of 19. After serving in Vietnam, he put down roots in Queens and became a citizen. “I saw on my father’s face the pride he had in passing the exam,” Moya said.
Colombia native Jahuer Brand, a delivery driver who lives in Ozone Park, summarized the problems facing many immigrants.
“The first problem immigrants have are the papers. When you don’t have documents, if you’re illegal, you can’t have a normal life,” he said.
“You get depressed. You get stressed. You suffer. Even when you are legal, and you have many advantages, the work you do is not well paid. You have to work for minimum wage and no benefits,” he said.
“The jobs I’ve had paid me a minimum salary,” he continued, adding that he had to do more than would normally be expected of someone who was not an immigrant.
“I worked as a custodian, and I had to clean, paint, plaster and do the gardening, for $10 an hour. Now we’re reclaiming our legal rights as workers,” he said.
He indicated that the new laws benefit all individuals, whether immigrants or not. Brand said immigrants have to learn their rights. “We don’t always speak English well, but that is not an excuse to not learn,” he said.
Echoing the need for education, Cinthya Simisterra of Latin Women In Action, said, “The biggest issue is that people are unaware of their rights. They feel they have to hide because of their legal status. The most important thing is to educate them, to raise awareness. When certain situations arise, they’ll know how to tackle them.”
Ady Barkan, a workers’ rights advocate at Make the Road New York, said the passage of the new laws has increased the number of complaints brought to the organization’s legal department. “It will take a long time for employers to comply with the law,” she said.
“We have to be strong and support each other,” said Maria Moncada, an immigrant who arrived from Colombia over 20 years ago and now lives in Corona. “This is a country of opportunities and open doors.
“We have to fight for better schools and better education,” she said. “The rich bosses should not abuse workers by paying low wages.”
“It is essential that we provide immigrant workers with information in their native languages about their rights on the job regardless of their immigration status,” said Moya, whose district he said contains the largest immigrant population in the state. “Immigrants are a vital part of the workforce and it is a top priority of mine to protect them from abuse and dangerous environments.”
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