Ever wonder why you can still get a manicure for $5 in parts of New York City? Or why waiters here are mostly white, while all the busboys are immigrants? All this is explained in a disturbing report just released by the Brennan Center for Justice, which shows that abusive is becoming the new normal in the urban workplace. The authors of Unregulated Work in the Global City: Employment and Labor Law Violations in New York City, studied 13 industries over three years, and found that violations of wage and hour, health and safety, discrimination and workers’ compensation laws, as well as of the right to organize, were commonplace, and generally went unpunished. (The authors are currently studying unregulated work in other cities, and are finding that the problem is a national one, so don’t dismiss this as an New York-centric story!)
Consumer patterns play a part; we all expect more convenience, services and goods, even when we don’t make much money. Just yesterday, I discovered that I could get a massage for $10.50 even in Manhattan (the Brennan Center reports that massage therapists in this low-priced segment can make as little as $275 a week, and employers routinely fail to protect them from customer harassment). Some businesses — discount stores, nail salons — keep prices low to serve poor consumers (whose work may also be largely unregulated) but to do that, must miserably exploit their workers, not even paying minimum wage, much less overtime.
Yet consumer poverty can’t explain everything, because high end restaurants are no picnic for workers, either (in fact, they seem to to be worse than fast food and other chain and franchise restaurants). In the city’s restaurant industry, illegal discrimination based on race and ethnicity is so common it goes almost unnoticed. So are violations of minimum wage: $5 an hour is about average, and it’s not unusual for coat checkers and delivery guys to make as little as $3 an hour.
So what is to be done? Often, we lefty types think that if everyone would just wake up, open their eyes and organize in their communities, all would be well. But actually, a lot of people have been doing just that, especially the immigrant workers most affected by these conditions. The Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association has been bringing attention to these problems for years. Another workers’ group, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, has also had organizing successes, forcing many restaurants to pay back wages to workers after public pickets. These groups are great at what they do, but the problems still persist because — as the title of this report suggests — there is little enforcement in many of these industries. When rampant lawlessness becomes an industry-wide norm, some businesses say they have to abuse workers in order to compete. Most Americans agree New York City is a nicer place to visit than it used to be, now that you’re less likely to be mugged. But it’s time to get tough on other kinds of crimes.