Making Workers Visible
By Tara Bracco

June 16, 2014


Mohammad Yousaf has been a cab driver for a year and four months. Originally from Pakistan, he’s lived in New York for 20 years. He began driving a cab because his friends were cab drivers and introduced him to the job. Driving a taxi in New York City is a rough job, he said, with long hours. Yousaf works 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, and yet it’s still hard to get by.


“You can barely just pay your bills and then barely have enough time to do the groceries or something else,” Yousaf said during a recent late-night shift. “You don’t have time for yourself. You go home, sleep six hours, get up, eat something, shower and shave, and then you go back to work.”


For people like Yousaf – who work grueling hours, struggle financially, and do not receive benefits – help may come from the nonprofit organizations and unions that are advocating for workers’ rights. Groups like the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, Make the Road New York, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance are fighting for benefits, higher wages, and safe working environments. They aim to raise the visibility of poor working conditions – and of the workers themselves.


There are 50,000 yellow taxi drivers in New York City. Collectively, these cab drivers transport on average 600,000 passengers a day, according to the Taxi & Limousine Commission. But it’s a job that is not largely respected or valued, said Bill Lindauer, spokesperson for the Taxi Workers Alliance, a union that represents 17,000 people.


“It’s a rough way to make a living. We call it a sweatshop on wheels because the hours are grueling and the pay isn’t commensurate with the toll it takes on one’s health and family,” he said.


Adding to an already tough business, drivers are exposed to assaults and racist attacks, Lindauer said. To help protect cab drivers, the Taxi Workers Alliance is supporting a Taxi Driver Protection Act, which would educate the public that assaulting a taxi driver is punishable by up to 25 years in prison. The act would mandate that a sticker with this warning be placed in every cab.


At Make the Road New York, a community-based, social justice nonprofit with more than 14,000 members, the organization helped secure six union contracts for car wash workers since 2012. According to a report by Wash New York, car washers make as little as $125 a week and work with few, if any, breaks.


January 30, 2014 - Elmhurst, NY. Car washers protest working conditions at Off Broadway Car Wash in Elmhurst. Photograph by Tobias Salinger.

January 30, 2014 – Elmhurst, NY. Car washers protest at Off Broadway Car Wash. Photograph by Tobias Salinger.

Car washers in New York are part of a vulnerable immigrant population who are paid low wages and are treated unfairly, said Julissa Bisono, senior workplace justice organizer at Make The Road.


“I’ve seen people with their ears burned from working with unsafe chemicals. We’ve seen people making $2 hour,” she said. Workers are treated like disposable labor, fired from their jobs if injured, Bisono said.


Most of Make the Road’s members – which include workers across industries such as day laborers, construction workers, housekeepers, laundry workers, restaurant workers and babysitters – are mostly undocumented and paid far below the minimum wage.


Make The Road was part of the paid sick leave moment in New York, and the group has also been working to recover unpaid wages. The organization helped get the Wage Theft Prevention Act passed, which went into effect in 2011. Wage theft, such as unpaid wages due to minimum wage violations or not paying overtime, has long been a campaign at Make the Road.


Over the last 17 years, the nonprofit has helped workers recover over $10 million in lost wages, Bisono said. Nearly $1 billion a year goes unpaid to workers in New York City, according to the 2010 report Working Without Laws issued by National Employment Law Project. The Wage Theft Prevention Act requires employers to give new employees notices about their rate of pay, how they are being paid, and their payday, according to the Department of Labor.


Wages issues, especially low pay, is also an issue for domestic workers, who are mostly women. As nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for the elderly or people with disabilities, these women work behind closed doors in isolated environments and their work is greatly undervalued.


“It’s not just babysitting,” said Rosana Reyes, communication manager at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, stating that the assumption that domestic workers are uneducated is wrong. “A lot of these women get training on how to be a better caregiver. They are taking early childhood education classes.”


The National Domestic Workers Alliance works with 10 organizations in New York City to “lift up the voice of domestic workers,” and at a national level, the group represents a quarter of country’s domestic workers who are both citizens and immigrants.


The hardships facing domestic workers are reflected in the Alliance’s 2012 report Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work. According to their survey, 60% of workers spend more than half their income on housing, 35% work long hours without proper breaks, and 67% of live-in workers earn less than the state minimum wage.


To address misconceptions about this workforce, the National Domestic Workers Alliance worked with the Department of Labor to change the definition of a caregiver, Reyes said. A caregiver was previously defined as a companion who was exempt from overtime, but the definition was revised to acknowledge the range of work a caregiver does in the home – cooking, cleaning, running errands, and dispensing medication.


The change in definition matters, Reyes said, because it represents a cultural shift. The Alliance wants to build society’s understanding of this largely invisible workforce.


“Domestic workers are the backbone for so many people to go out and do their work,” Reyes said. “This is the work that makes all other work possible.”