Sweat & Sour. "Undocumented" Chinese People in New York Think of Their Work as Being Rather like Military Service. Now, Reports Matthew Reiss, They're Getting Organized Instead

By Reiss, Matthew | New Internationalist, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Sweat & Sour. "Undocumented" Chinese People in New York Think of Their Work as Being Rather like Military Service. Now, Reports Matthew Reiss, They're Getting Organized Instead


Reiss, Matthew, New Internationalist


'Undocumented' Chinese people in New York think of their work as being rather like military service. Now, reports Matthew Reiss, they're getting organized instead.

From inside a steel-shuttered storefront comes a sound resembling bees. A Cantonese woman picks a pattern from a bale of freshly cut polyester. She puts it on her sewing machine and jabs the safety catch with her knee. Guides the fabric and jabs the safety catch. She pushes a pedal with one bare foot and the needle pours white thread into the fabric. She drops it on a pile. Picks another. Hits the safety...

'This is what they call a sweatshop,' says state labour inspector Vince Cardillo. 'Because it's hot.'

Electric fans stir the humid air. Polyester fibres float like pollen. One woman wears a cotton patch over her lips and nostrils. Vince tells the smartly dressed boss lady to get out the registration and payroll records. In a red-plastic Buddhist shrine, burning joss sticks protect the workers and bless the fire exit. It's bolted shut. Lu looks up from her machine. She's from the Chinese community in Peru.

'The work is much better there,' she tells me.

'What the hell are you telling him?' thunders the boss lady.

Lu gets the message. A labour inspector comes over and questions her.

'I make 80 to 100 dollars a week,' she lies, unaware that twice her salary is still less than the legal minimum of $4.25 an hour.

Like so many other immigrants in New York's Chinatown, Chow's emigration to America didn't require a decision. 'America is like military service,' he says. 'Everyone between the ages of 18 and 45 does it.'

For 18 months Chow was illegal in seven countries. He ran from border guards in Vietnam; dodged bullets in Cambodia; got arrested twice in Thailand; was led back to Cambodia and got a plane ticket to Moscow. He was detained at the airport and later turned back at the German border. He finally got to New York on a flight from Kiev. On the plane he tore up his fake Taiwanese passport and flushed it over the Atlantic.

'Smuggling will never end as long as there's a need for cheap labour,' says Wing Lam of the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association. 'I think the people in power believe that the only way to save America is to have slave labour. …

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