New York: One afternoon last February, in front of dozens of riled-up protesters and two police officers, a small, visibly distraught woman confronted her employer at Sunshine Shirt Laundry Centre, a family-owned cleaner in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
In the back of the store, stacks of dirty shirts spilt from a few laundry carts alongside an ironing board, as clients entering the place were fighting their way through the crowd of protesters to drop off their laundry at the counter.
“I’ve been working here for 15 years in the same misery,” said Ricarda, 44, who insisted she be identified only by her first name because of her immigration status. A single mother of two from Mexico, Ricarda was being paid around $7 (Dh25.7) an hour — about half the city’s minimum wage for small businesses — while working up to 72 hours a week without overtime benefits.
Ricarda then aimed her complaints directly at her boss: “When I went to the hospital, I still had to come to work”; “I asked you to install ventilation, and it made you laugh”; “Your brother shoves me and looks at me sideways.”
As she spoke, two activists attempted to translate from Ricarda’s native Spanish into English, then into Chinese for her employer, Huanxin Chen.
And one more thing, she told him, after handing him a letter listing her demands: “My name is not Richa. It’s Ricarda!”
A better life
To many immigrants in New York, laundries — both owning and working in them — can mean an opportunity for a better life. With little customer interaction, the business is appealing to those still learning English. And because having a washer/dryer is still considered a luxury here — a recent search on StreetEasy showed that only a third of its listed properties featured units — there is a strong demand in the city for wash-and-fold drop-off services.
This has propelled the growth of some 4,000 licensed laundries in the city, most of them either coin-operated laundromats that also provide wash-and-fold services or dry cleaners that do the same, plus ironing, according to New York City’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection.
Retail laundries offer steady, physical work that tends to attract immigrant workers who have no documentation. Many, according to academics and industry professionals, are Hispanic women, like Ricarda.
For those same reasons and because New York laundromats are often profitable, said Brian Wallace, the president and chief executive of the Coin Laundry Association, the industry draws a great many immigrant entrepreneurs as well, a large portion of whom are Chinese, like Chen.
“I didn’t speak good English, and it was hard for me to find a job,” said Chen earlier this summer. He moved to New York with his family in 2009 and bought his store that same year after spotting it in a for-sale ad in a local Chinese-language daily.
But tensions between laundry workers and their employers are becoming more visible as some of the city’s have taken very public steps to fight for their rights, leading demonstrations and filing lawsuits to claim tens of thousands in back wages.
In this struggle, though, the wins can be bittersweet. Owners say they’ve had to cut employees’ hours to meet their demands for minimum wage.
Owners have found themselves on the defensive, as an advocacy group, the Laundry Workers Centre, spearheads a wave of organising throughout New York City’s laundromats, leading secret trainings and connecting the laundry employees to lawyers.
Still, it’s incredibly hard to organise workers who fear retaliation or, worse, being deported.
“They say: ‘I don’t have a choice. I have to survive, pay for my rent. I know they’re stealing from me, but if I take action, I’ll lose my work,’” Mahoma Lopez, a co-director of the Centre, explained.
Retail laundries, traditionally small and with only a few employees, have a long history of exploitation.
According to Jenny Carson, a labour history professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, industrial laundries, often set up in garages and basements with no ventilation, started cropping up around New York City in the first half of the 20th century.
Workers’ arms and hands were burnt from the use of chemicals. Often, they developed rheumatism, respiratory issues, heart conditions or muscle pain.
By 1930, laundries were the country’s largest industrial employer of black women, many of whom came from the South.
Carson traces the field to a long tradition of African Americans washing clothes in private homes during slavery and the Jim Crow era. “Laundry work, from its inception, has always been racialised labour associated with women of colour,” she said.
Conditions have improved in industrial plants, and unions are largely credited for elevating these standards. Many companies outside the city used by hospitals and restaurants, like Unitex Healthcare Laundry Services and White Plains Linen, offer guaranteed full-time work, as well as health and retirement benefits.
But on the storefront level, workers are struggling. Solidarity cannot be built because employees often work alone during their shifts. And according to Stephanie Luce, a professor of labour studies at the City University of New York, unions lack the resources to organise such a dispersed workforce, one store at a time.
“It takes so much time and energy to form a union,” said Luce. “Most of the time, we don’t see that work being put in such small places.” The diversity of retail laundry workers, she added, also requires organisers to speak a range of languages.
Perhaps what inhibits collective organising the most, though, is the ruthless competition among laundromats, sometimes within the same block.
There are so many of them in the city, if one started charging customers 30% more to pay for employees’ benefits, it would go out of business, said Megan Chambers, a co-manager of the Laundry, Distribution and Food Service Joint Board, Workers United, SEIU.
On the other hand, because they are in such high demand here, retail laundries tend to be profitable, which is why they remain attractive to newly arrived entrepreneurs.
“The more people, the more dirty clothes; that is an irrefutable law of physics,” said Wallace, of the Coin Laundry Association.
According to Wallace, profit margins in the field range between 20 and 25 per cent, once the initial investment is paid off. It costs $200 per square foot on average to build and equip a store, with the help of a wholesale distributor.
“After that, it’s a pretty straightforward business,” he said.
Many of the laundry workers experiencing these violations are here illegally, and they are often hesitant about speaking up. They complain “at a significantly lesser rate than workers in other low-wage industries,” said James Rogers, the deputy commissioner for worker protection at the New York State Department of Labor.
Rogers said it would possibly help if the department initiated more investigations of laundromats and dry cleaners, recalling how it did such a thing with nail salons. But a proactive stance like this, he added, would require the agency to partner with grass roots groups who could help organise the workers.
This is where the Laundry Workers Centre, created in 2011, comes in. But it has taken the organisation several years to mobilise such a fractured workforce. Along the way, the non-profit gained some experience with other low-wage industries like the restaurant business, which has a greater tradition of collective action.
A breakthrough came in 2016 when the non-profit decided to conduct a survey, which was published last year. For two years, Laundry Workers Centre members posed as consumers in about 100 randomly chosen laundromats around the city, observing and interviewing the workers.
The survey found that 1 in 5 employees was paid below minimum wage, while 36 per cent of them did not receive proper overtime compensation. Nearly a third surveyed claimed to have no sick or vacation days.
Eventually, the centre persuaded a group of laundry workers who participated in the survey to attend weekly training sessions, which would lead to protests and demonstrations.
The first protest took place in June 2018 at TYS Laundromat, a family-owned business in East Harlem, making it, according to the centre, the first organised laundromat in the city.
“They’ve started paying us minimum wage and we now have better working conditions,” said Perla, one of the campaign’s organisers, who requested that only her nickname be used because of her immigration status.
Immediately after the protest, Perla’s pay was increased from $9 to $12 an hour — New York City’s minimum wage in 2018 for small businesses. But then in November, her weekly hours were cut from 66 to 40, right below the overtime limit.
“We make more or less the same as before,” she said.
Her boss, Xiong Lin, who bought TYS in 2015 and has yet to get his initial investment back, said he couldn’t afford to pay Perla overtime.
Despite her hours being cut, Perla, who came here from Mexico 12 years ago, said her work situation has improved.
“My feet used to be swollen from standing 11 hours a day, six days a week without sitting,” she said, adding that she couldn’t take any breaks then and had to skip meals, which gave her chronic gastritis.
These days, Perla is allowed a 30-minute pause for lunch. She also said that Lin now provides workers with gloves and masks for the use of bleach and to deal with the lint coming out of dryers. “My throat used to burn at the end of my shift,” she said.
Lin argued that he has always complied with safety standards. He also denied any accusation of abusive treatment outside of not paying his workers fairly.
Last November, Perla and another co-worker filed a lawsuit against TYS, seeking back pay for unpaid minimum wage and overtime. A settlement was reached this month: Lin has agreed to pay his two workers $150,000 in total and to keep employing them at least 40 hours a week.
Back at Sunshine Shirt Laundry Centre in Bay Ridge, Ricarda’s hope for better work conditions was short-lived.
Three weeks after she participated in the protest last February, her hours were cut.
Similar to what had happened to Perla at TYS, Ricarda saw her pay increase from around $7 to $13.50 an hour, but with her decreased weekly hours, she was making $164 less than what she used to.
Ricarda’s financial situation became so dire that her older son, who was finishing high school, decided he would start working after graduation instead of going to college.
Ricarda’s lawyer, Lina Stillman, estimates that she is owed close to $200,000. After a failed mediation, Ricarda and a co-worker filed a complaint. The case is ongoing.
Chen, 52, claims that he doesn’t owe his employees any money and that he’s always paid them fairly. And he contends that the bad publicity and weekly picketing in front of his store after the protest made his business decrease by 60 per cent.
“I’m losing thousands of dollars every month,” he said in June.
That same month, Chen closed up Sunshine Shirt Laundry Centre for good.
“Now, I need to find another job,” he said.
So does Ricarda.
A success migrant story
David Yu and his wife, Susan Guan, came from China to Brooklyn 20 years ago. Yu bought his first laundromat in 2005 in Greenpoint for $70,000, with the help of his parents and money he’d saved working in construction and restaurants here.
“The start-up costs are higher than a restaurant, but there is less competition and it’s more stable,” Yu said last month.
Now Yu owns seven laundries around the city — all named after his wife — including a large 24-hour location in Flushing, Queens, whose 170 machines can return as much as $20,000 in gross monthly sales.
Although he complained that rising rents, competition and the increased minimum wage in New York are eroding his profits, Yu, who bought a house in Queens and has sent two of his children to college, has built a comfortable life here.
These days, he said, he employs 25 people in total, most of them Hispanic women.
Yu prides himself on paying his employees the legal minimum wage ($13.50 an hour for small businesses) and sick leave. (One worker at a Queens location confirmed this.)
But he is aware of employees’ rights violations at other laundries.
“These are usually mom-and-pop stores who are taking advantage of new immigrants,” Yu said.