Migrant workers put pressure on companies as pandemic recovery gives them leverage. : NPR
Mike Segar / Reuters
This fall, New York’s estimated 65,000 delivery bikers saw significant employment improvements when city council passed several new worker protection bills.
Some of what they won was so basic it was “ridiculous”, says delivery guy Gustavo Ajche.
“It makes me laugh to talk about it: the access to the toilets”, he confides, during an interview in Spanish. Ajche, originally from Guatemala, was one of the organizers of Los Deliveristas Unidos, an umbrella group created to unite independent entrepreneurs, mainly immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and South Asia, under one name.
Immigrant workers have faced additional challenges over the past year and a half. Foreign-born workers, defined by the US Census Bureau as naturalized US citizens, those with green cards, visa holders, and undocumented immigrants, were more likely to be unemployed during the height of the pandemic , according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.
Undocumented workers were under additional pressure as they are not eligible for federal pandemic safety net programs, such as stimulus payments or increased unemployment. Many have been forced to work or depend on community support to survive.
But these difficulties have prompted some to take action across the country.
The pandemic has been a catalyst for changing the work of app-based food deliveries, according to Hildalyn ColÃ³n HernÃ¡ndez, director of policy and strategic partnerships at the Workers’ Justice Project, an advocacy group for low-wage immigrant workers in the city. from New York. The streets were empty and bicycle delivery men were more visible, she said. Their ranks also swelled when restaurants closed, Ajche said, and many undocumented waiters and cooks turned to deliveries.
After having organized two large marches in October 2020 and April 2021, and attract media attention, Los Deliveristas Unidos has succeeded in passing groundbreaking laws in New York. In addition to the right to use the toilets in restaurants where they pick up orders, delivery men have also won minimum wages and transparency on tip amounts. Delivery companies like DoorDash and UberEATS are also required to provide delivery people with the insulated food bags that they once had to purchase on their own.
“This package is a great success … but there are a lot of things to work out,” Ajche says. For example, road safety and the widespread theft of expensive electric bikes from workers are still a concern, he says. But “it’s a start”.
Workers in other booming pandemic companies have also turned their challenges into fuel for the organization. Lily Vasquez, originally from El Salvador, has worked packaging meal kits at a HelloFresh warehouse in the Bay Area since 2016.
During the pandemic, she says, they continued to work as before – but with more fear.
“We went to work and we wondered all the time if the person next to us would be sick,” says Vasquez. Two people she knows who caught COVID-19 at work have died. Vasquez herself contracted COVID-19 in December. She tried to protect her family members, but eventually passed the virus on to her then 12-year-old son.
All the while, she says, workers continued to expect their employers to pay more attention to them during a global health crisis. âWe thought, ‘Oh, they’re going to act, they’re going to start testing,’ because we still have to go to work, ‘she said. Instead, “We don’t feel like we’ve been treated like human beings.”
A spokesperson for HelloFresh said the company has made “significant investments and improvements in safety to support our frontline employees in our distribution centers,” including deep cleanings, updates to the air filtration system and health examinations.
This summer, the Vasquez warehouse in Richmond, California, and another HelloFresh warehouse in Aurora, Colorado, publicized their efforts to unionize, represented by Unite Here. Many employees are Latino, Pacific Islander or African immigrants, according to a union staff member. In addition to concerns over COVID, workers say construction site injuries and low wages have driven the campaign.
“We need security, respect, better wages,” says Vasquez.
Although the current economic climate has created opportunities for some workers to demand better wages or conditions, these opportunities are not distributed evenly. According to a new report from Institute for Migration Policy. Immigrant job losses were highest in the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast regions. Immigrants are also “over-concentrated” in some industries that struggled during the pandemic, such as hospitality and construction, according to the report.
Some immigrants working in these industries are simply struggling not to be in a worse situation than they were before the pandemic.
Beatriz Torres worked as a salon attendant at the Marriott Copley Place in Back Bay, Boston for 23 years. Last year, she says, she was shocked to be fired, along with more than 200 other hotel workers.
“You invest your whole life in a company, and suddenly, they leave you on the streets in the middle of a pandemic”, she confides, during an interview in Spanish.
Torres, who is a naturalized citizen, has found work at a Starbucks at the airport, but he pays about $ 8 less an hour than his old job. It is not enough, but at 70, she is at a disadvantage. Older workers of all origins were hardest hit by the pandemic recession.
So Torres and other workers, who are not unionized, demonstrated outside the hotel, handing out leaflets and trying to publicize their cause.
âRight now we are focusing on a boycott because we want them to give us our jobs back,â she said. So far, they have not succeeded. Marriott Copley Place management did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
On a smaller scale, some workers simply defend their interests.
A woman named Reyes, who has asked NPR to use her last name only because she is undocumented, works as a preparatory cook in Philadelphia. Knowing that the restaurant industry is understaffed, she says she recently negotiated a small increase.
After seeing another employee quit, she said, âI went to the boss and told him if you don’t pay me more, I will leave.
As a result, she says, her boss offered to increase her salary to $ 17 / hour, a dollar more than her previous salary.
Reyes says she enjoys what she does and doesn’t really want to find another job. But the current work climate and high turnover was an opening she couldn’t pass up.
“I took advantage of the moment because otherwise … there is no other time, other times like this,” she said.