GT investigates: Ethnic minorities in US forced to work in low-paying jobs, face challenges of forced labor, racial discrimination
Ethnic minorities in US forced to work in low-paying jobs, face challenges of forced labor, racial discrimination
Published: May 29, 2024 10:42 PM Updated: May 29, 2024 11:12 PM
Editor's Note:

China's State Council Information Office on Wednesday released a document entitled The Report on Human Rights Violations in the United States in 2023, detailing the country's deteriorating human rights situation with solid facts and figures.

The report noted that ethnic minorities in the US face systematic racial discrimination, as the chronic disease of racism persists in the US. While a ruling minority maintains political, economic and social dominance in the country, the majority of ordinary people are increasingly marginalized, with their basic rights and freedoms being disregarded.

Hundreds of ethnic and racial minority protesters in the US took to the streets in October 2023 in front of the New York City government building to demand for the abolition of the 24-hour work system in order to protect their legitimate rights and interests. 

Through various investigations and interviews, Global Times reporters have learned that ethnic racial minorities in the US still face challenges such as forced labor and racial discrimination. If the US government does not address the fundamental rights and interests of the minority groups as well as the rampant discrimination against these groups, the resulting anger and hatred will only further inflame existing conflicts in the long run.

Hundreds of ethnic and racial minority protesters in the US take to the streets on to demand for the abolition of the 24-hour work system to protect their legitimate rights and interests, on October 18, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of Ben Weng

Hundreds of ethnic and racial minority protesters in the US take to the streets on to demand for the abolition of the 24-hour work system to protect their legitimate rights and interests, on October 18, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of Ben Weng

What is the 24-hour workday system compared to its 8-hour counterpart? Ning Zishun from the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, a community organization in New York, said that as New York is the cultural and financial hub of the US, the city's current laws have significant loophole - there is no upper limit on working hours, which means that employers can legally implement 24-hour work days seven days a week, a feature also present in many high-tech industries.

Ning told the Global Times that to take care of the sick and the elderly who are unable to care for themselves, the New York government has at least 560,000 home care workers. Many of these critically or terminally ill patients need round-the-clock care, which includes help with eating, mobility through wheelchairs, and diaper changes. Certain elderly people suffering from dementia require constant supervision to guarantee their safety.

Asian, Latin American, Caribbean, and African American women comprising the vast majority of home care workers in New York are forced to work continuously for 24, 72, and 96 hours, if not longer. 

However, long work hours do not mean increased pay. Shi Yuzhi, 61, who has been working as a home care worker in New York for many years, told the Global Times that she has diligently taken care of her then 91-year-old American employer for a decade. 

Despite working round the clock, she only gets paid for 13 hours of work each day. Home care providers are only entitled to 13 hours of pay per the applicable rule of the New York State government since it is "assumed" that they should have eight hours of sleep and three-hour meal breaks. 

According to Shi, their duties as home care workers and their assumed meal and rest breaks are incongruous. Patients with dementia require round-the-clock care to keep them safe. Every few hours, those under their care need to be rolled over. Home care providers work day and night, which exerts a great physical and psychological toll resulting in a variety of chronic ailments and premature death.

Shi said that although the US government ignores the "24-hour work system," home care providers should typically be scheduled for a "two-shift system" or a "multi-person rotating shift system." Shi and other ethnic and racial minority individuals working under similar conditions have been fighting for their rights for the last eight years, but have not had much luck.

In order to abolish the 24-hour work system, New York City Councilman Christopher Marte proposed a bill named the "No More 24 Bill," calling for legislation to ban the 24-hour work practice. However, the bill has been pending for around two years and is still in the review stage.

Marte's parents are immigrants from the Dominican Republic. His father runs a grocery store, and his mother used to work in a garment factory before becoming a home care worker. This family background gives Marte an intimate perspective on the plight of people most affected by the 24-hour work system in the US. 

He told the Global Times that for decades, ethnic minorities have faced extremely harsh working conditions in the US, especially in New York City, where they are forced to work continuously for 24 hours, sometimes three to five days a week. However, these new immigrants have no say in policymaking and are exploited by special interest groups.

This is why Marte proposed the bill in 2022, and a hearing was held for the bill in the fall of the same year. If it receives support in the City Council, the bill will be passed into law. However, the bill has been ignored for over one year. According to Marte, the speaker of the New York City Council, Adrienne Adams, is mostly to blame for the delay of the bill's review.

It is the responsibility of Adams to set the order and timeline for the proposed review. Adams is obstructing the bill's passage, defending special interest organizations, and supporting acts of racial violence, according to Marte. 

Hundreds of ethnic and racial minority protesters in the US take to the streets on to demand for the abolition of the 24-hour work system to protect their legitimate rights and interests, on October 18, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of Caitlin Kelmar

Hundreds of ethnic and racial minority protesters in the US take to the streets on to demand for the abolition of the 24-hour work system to protect their legitimate rights and interests, on October 18, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of Caitlin Kelmar

Collusion between government and business

According to publicly available data, Adams received an impressive number of votes to become the speaker of the New York City Council and assumed office in 2022. Her mother has worked as a correction officer for 20 years, and her father drives a truck. Adams once declared that she will always put labor first because she is the first ever African-American speaker of the New York City Council in history. Despite this promise, Adams ignores the opinions of ethnic and racial minorities.

In the US, the government buys insurance from insurance companies, which then dispatch home caregivers through caregiving agencies. However, the wages that are not fully paid to the home caregivers are divided among stakeholders.

Marte told the Global Times that this kind of collusion between government agencies and business is quite common in the US. In order to protect the interests of certain special interest groups, government agencies often ignore the demands of workers, especially from minority ethnic groups.

In fact, Marte and 28 other lawmakers were the ones who first presented the "No More 24 Bill." Since there are only 51 members on the City Council, a law can normally be signed by the speaker of the Council provided that more than half of the members vote in favor of it. However, because the law appeared to affect vested interests, the speaker's office did not want to put it to a vote in the City Council.

Public information and media reports show that the US government, big healthcare providers, insurance providers, and other interested parties stand to gain a significant deal from the present industrial paradigm. Insurance firms and caregiver dispatch agencies may gain billions of dollars by forcing minority ethnic families into the 24-hour labor system while only compensating them for 13 hours of work. 

According to Marte, the speaker's office may have phoned the lawmakers who jointly presented the bill and threatened that none of the other bills they propose would pass if they brought up the "No More 24 Bill." This might have been in response to pressure from specific special interest groups. A few private arrangements were made, such as the legislator's district receiving additional political funding on condition that the bill is not brought up again.

Donations are the simplest way for businesses and politicians to work together. For instance, insurance firms and caregiver dispatch services might provide political support to legislators running for office again. In an effort to keep their "interest delivery" connection steady, some business leaders may occasionally also back the politicians they like.

Marte bitterly noted that whenever he tries to help ethnic and racial minorities to improve their situation, his efforts are often thwarted. 

Public information shows that in order to protect their legitimate rights and interests, since 2018, some ethnic minority care workers have complained to the New York State Department of Labor (DOL). In 2019, the DOL began investigating some of their complaints and informed them that the investigation results confirmed wage theft. 

However, in May and June of 2023, the DOL suddenly rejected the complaints of more than 100 care workers and sent letters refusing to continue the investigation on the grounds that they could not intervene in cases that entered arbitration or union collective bargaining.

Ron Kim, who serves in the New York State Assembly, wrote a letter to New York State Department of Labor Commissioner Roberta Reardon for this matter, saying that the law should be used to protect workers from exploitation and demanded that the DOL immediately resume the investigation.

Kim told the Global Times that he thought the rejection of workers' demands by the DOL and other relevant agencies is not in compliance with the law, and is completely politically motivated.

In the US, legislation, law enforcement, and following the letter of the law are all dependent on the size of one's political power. If people with political power do not wish to comply with the law, then the law is meaningless, and can therefore not applied to protect ethnic and racial minorities, said Kim. 

According to Kim, healthcare interest groups are some of the most powerful political groups in New York and can directly cooperate with the governor's office and the mayor's office. They use people of color and minority ethnic groups as free labor to reap billions of dollars in profits, using this money to win over politicians by funding their political careers. In turn, said politicians act as legislative allies, protecting the vested interests of the interest groups - this is the political ecology of the US. 

Politicians listen only to those who have greater political power, and are therefore not beholden to minority ethnic groups. The unique "revolving door" mechanism in the US makes it difficult for some people to break through the inherent circles and interest groups formed between government agencies and private sector actors such as insurance companies, said Kim.

American politics is essentially "money politics," Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times. 

Some well-funded lobby groups, companies, or unscrupulous businessmen can use the fatal loopholes in American politics to deprive the general public of their legitimate rights, while protecting their own economic interests through using their money to interfere in political processes. It is not an exaggeration to say that American politics is "dark money politics," said Li.

Modern slavery

As a Latino lawmaker, Marte admits that racial discrimination and forced labor are still very common in the US. People from ethnic and racial minority groups work in jobs that are essential to the daily running of New York City as driving cabs, operating fast-food restaurants, running childcare facilities, and delivering food. In the beginning, their goal was simply to trade labor for a decent living wage, but because of the legal loopholes, some of them are forced to work longer hours without fair compensation. 

According to Marte, it is easy to observe that systematic racism has had a major role in American history and is still evident in modern American culture, where people of color and ethnic minorities are mainly employed in low-paying jobs. Most of these people are in a condition of long-term oppression and find it impossible to plead for their legal rights.

The irony is not lost on Marte that in 2023, discussions about the brutal exploitation of people of color and ethnic minorities are still going on in the US, making a mockery of the claim that the US is "beacon of human rights." 

These problems have existed in this country for hundreds of years. People often say that the US is the "land of freedom" and the "land of opportunity," but what is the cost of these so-called freedoms and opportunities? Are they obtained by exploiting the blood and sweat of people of color and ethnic minorities? How ironic, said Marte, noting that many new immigrants who come with the "American Dream" cannot live the life they have been dreaming of.

Li said that racism is an inherent gene in the US' own national independence and development, and can never be eliminated. 

The exploitation of ethnic and racial minorities in the US is a "modern version of slavery." The practice of the top US leadership overriding the demands of the people reflects state of terminal illness of US politics, said Li. 

If US government officials cannot solve issues affecting the basic rights and interests of the exploited groups in their own country or state, and instead use them as tools to further vested political agendas, it reflects the US government's incompetence and foolishness, said Li.