Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube

Disposable Labor: the plight of an undocumented worker in NYC

There are an estimated half million undocumented immigrants in New York City and 11 million nationally. This a story of a workday under those conditions.

Oscar Vega

May 21, 2018
Facebook Twitter Share

Para leer este artículo en español.

The 6 a.m. subway ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan is a different experience than taking the same trip later on in the day. At this early hour, the cars of the train are occupied primarily by Black and Latino workers. The workers do not travel together but individually. There are no conversations. Most are trying to get in another hour of sleep during their commute. But even when their eyes are closed, their ears are alert to the voice of the conductor who announces delays or the stations that will be skipped or the need to transfer to busses.

A request is heard repeatedly over the loudspeaker: “Please do not block the doors. If our train is delayed, the train behind us will be too, and everyone will be late for work. Please take the next train.” One’s idealized image of the great subway of New York City vanishes quickly when seeing a system that is in serious disrepair and increasingly costly for its riders.

At Canal Street station, the crowds rush to change trains. In my case, I make a change which will save me six blocks of walking in the inhospitable cold of New York. In the station, the posters read in Spanish. I take the stairs up to the street and find myself in a neighborhood filled with Chinese characters. Stalls selling traditional Chinese products and foods line the street. Newspapers are being sold outside the shops, but I can only understand them by their images: Trump has bombed Syria. Buying something here is an adventure. One can only work out the contents of the packages through a few clues and a word or two in English.

You might be interested in: The Fight for Free Time and the Fight Against Capitalism

It’s our job to open up the store. My co-worker is Ecuadorian, and I arrived from Argentina only a few months ago. We begin the day chatting a bit about the delays on the subway that morning or wondering when the cold will come to an end. But mostly we concentrate on our jobs, making sure that no mistakes are made and everything is ready to open our doors on time. Among the pots, tables, and appliances, she tells me her story: “I’ve been working here for over a year with only one day off a week. I send the money I earn to my family back home, or I save it for emergencies. I spent a month in a detention center here — just when Trump took office!”

Some hours later, the other workers begin to arrive. The majority are young; the youngest is 17 and has two jobs, another is barely twenty and crossed the border after a six-day trek through the desert. Those who work in my section are all from Guatemala. The workers who attend to the customers are from China, Korea and Venezuela.

At the beginning, I thought that there were three languages being spoken among the workers. But I came to notice that many workers were peasants and speak in their own dialects during their breaks when they call up their family members or friends back home. “Arbol!” a co-worker shouts at me —“Tree.” Upon seeing my confused face, he explains to me that this means “Hey” in his dialect. From what I can tell, there are 10 workers speaking nine languages, not counting even the Spanglish we all use when trying to communicate with each other.

A question that is unavoidable is how to organize and discuss politics among workers of such diverse backgrounds and when the bosses are constantly looking over our shoulders. The thing that unites us is our workplace, where we work to pay rent, eat, save for our studies, and try to enjoy ourselves as much as we can in our free time. In New York, there is a certain acceptance of workers without papers since there are millions of us in this situation and hundreds of thousands of businesses that take advantage of this workforce. We are cheap labor, and they can make more profit with us. Business owners save money by paying us below-average wages and by denying us any benefits: we get no time off for vacations or sick days, no health care, no retirement contributions, no holiday pay, and we can be fired anytime without any severance pay. After a bad day or a brief shouting match with the boss, we can be tossed out the door without a second thought.

You might be interested in: The Workday: An Endless Battle Around Time

The boss checks in and heads straight to his office. I don’t know if he is the manager or the owner, but he doesn’t greet us. “Sometimes I feel like we’re just animals to him. He doesn’t even speak to us,” my co-worker says when she sees me angry about it. Not only are we treated as completely disposable and have to work even when we’re sick, we also share the worry of millions of other workers here in the U.S. that comes with not having health insurance. Even though it flies in the face of logic, in the richest and most powerful country in the world, education and health care are luxury services.

The workers chat about the situations of family members who were deported or detained by ICE (the Migra, they call it), who couldn’t take it any longer and returned to their countries knowing they wouldn’t be able to enter the U.S. again, and those who found ways to get legal status.

They compare their jobs to those found by friends, neighbors, and cousins, and talk about the differences between the jobs for those with papers and the jobs for those without. Everyone agrees that there are jobs much worse than ours.

Despite their difficulties, most decide they will stay. As hard as it is, their primary focus is helping their children or their family members back home, and with all the hardships they have to endure, they feel their quality of life is still better here than it was in the countries they left.

We are part of the working class that keeps this city running day in and day out, and it is critical that we organize to win the rights we’ve been denied. At a time when socialism is no longer viewed with disdain among large layers of society, in which the Teachers Spring has spread throughout the country, demonstrating the power of a strike and the need to improve our public education and health systems, and in which thousands of young people are becoming involved in politics, we must contribute our small part to this battle — a battle that native-born and foreign-born workers must fight together against the same enemy.

Facebook Twitter Share

Labor Movement

CUNY workers at a demonstration hold a banner that reads "STRIKE TO SAVE CUNY."

CUNY Workers Launch New Strike Campaign

As Governor Hochul proposes another $528 million in cuts, workers at the City University of New York are fighting back.

Olivia Wood

February 12, 2024
With the U.S Capitol in the background, demonstrators rally during the March on Washington for Gaza at Freedom Plaza in Washington, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024.

AFL-CIO’s Ceasefire Call Shows Power of the Movement for Palestine

The AFL-CIO has called for a ceasefire in Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza. The labor movement must go further for Palestinian liberation and break with the bipartisan regime.

Otto Fors

February 11, 2024

After Historic Strike, UAW Bureaucrats Sit By as Stellantis Lays Off Hundreds of Workers

Only a few months after a historic contract struggle and strike, Stellantis announced job cuts in early December that have begun and will continue to take effect this month. A reminder that under capitalism the only way for workers to get what they need is self-organization, independent of the union bureaucracy, Democrats and Republicans.

Emma Boyhtari

February 2, 2024
Joe Biden and Shawn Fain, UAW president, standing on a stage together. UAW has endorsed Biden for president.

The UAW’s Endorsement of “Genocide Joe” Is a Betrayal of Palestinians and Workers

The UAW has endorsed “Genocide Joe” for president, betraying Palestinians and workers. It’s time for labor to break with the Democrats.

Otto Fors

January 29, 2024

MOST RECENT

All That's Left, the podcast from Left Voice.

#AllThatsLeftPod: Two Years of War in Ukraine

On this episode of the podcast, we discuss the war in Ukraine after two years, and the continued need for an independent, working-class solution.

Left Voice

February 24, 2024

The Organic Crisis in 2024: This Year’s Election Is a Battle for the Hearts and Minds of U.S. Workers

The battle between Trump and Biden is being shaped by a crisis of the political regime, requiring the intervention of both the judiciary and the union bureaucracy. The battle for the presidency is a battle for the working class and a battle over which approach to imperialism is best for competing with China and reestablishing US hegemony. As usual, the Democrats are taking up the cudgel of democratic rights in order to rally disaffected voters.

Sybil Davis

February 23, 2024

The Tide Is Turning: New Yorkers Are Speaking Out for Palestinian Liberation

Zionists have long wielded their influence and power in New York City, but the anti-zionist movement is finally taking an unapologetic stand against them.

Ana Orozco

February 23, 2024

The United States Is Trapped in the Middle East

As a result of Israel’s offensive on Gaza, the United States is again becoming deeply entrenched in the Middle East. This is a humiliating blow to President Biden, who promised to reassert U.S. imperialism by moving away from direct involvement in the region.

Samuel Karlin

February 22, 2024