Saturday, September 3, 2016

Personal Stories of My Working Life in America

© Kim Roberts

September 5th, 2016 is American Labor Day, a holiday that always brings back memories of hundreds of stories of American working class—stories which I've learned and experienced through my work with several federal agencies over four decades. And I remember them well.
January 2010. Lily Ha, the Vietnamese-American witness sitting next to me on the witness stand, nervously laid her shaken left hand on her expensive black silk dress that covered her unusually skinny thighs. “He started by pushing me down and choking me…,” said Lily, in a trembling voice, describing to the 12 jurors her job, a sex act with her former customer, the 41 years old African American male defendant who was sitting by his attorney at the defense table. I glanced at a glassy streak of tear on Lily’s cheek and put my right hand on her hand and, with my left hand, tucked a tissue under her well-manicured fingers with long, red fingernails.  She immediately dabbed her cheeks with the tissue. 

American labor law and labor union groups protect the mainstream American workforce by preventing employers from denying them minimum wage, overtime pay, or prevailing wages when applicable, or other work-related issues. But many workers, mostly from diverse cultural backgrounds, working in traditional or non-traditional professions, have been abused and exploited, without getting much attention from mainstream American media. In 1982, Studs Terkel’s “Working” piqued my interest and curiosity in the meaning of work that American workers, mired down in their quotidian, mundane details at work, still had. Labor Day in America, first observed in 1882, nearly 100 years before I became an American citizen, means more to me than just a day dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. Through my employment, I have become a recipient of many incredible stories told by workers I interviewed. Labor Day has become a day to remember their stories of suffering, abuse, and mistreatment at work—unlike stories in Studs Terkel’s “Working.”

Although Lily, the above witness on stand, looked beautiful and delicate, she was not a female. A transgender prostitute living and working in the Tenderloin neighborhood in SF, she was on the stand at the SF Superior Court, testifying as a witness on a case against a suspect who was accused of killing another transgender prostitute from Nicaragua, Ordenana, in 2007 after the perpetrator raped and strangled her, then left her dead, naked body by the freeway in Potreo Hill. DNA tied him to more attacks on transgender prostitutes. Lily herself suffered the same rape and brutal attacks. Luckily, she survived after she was choked, beaten, stripped naked, and thrown out of the perpetrator’s truck. And she lived to testify against him. In one of my freelance jobs, I was interpreting for her on the stand. I was intrigued by the details of the case, which I took an oath to keep confidential until the trial was over and its details became public. I was also fascinated by other court cases in which working people became crime victims although the personal stories behind each case were my focus, not the crimes.

Lily testified that she needed money for meth. Despite the pain and humiliation, she enjoyed good moments when she had money, sat in a coffee shop, or out for “pho” (soup), or “banh mi” (sandwich), with her co-workers or friends. As we were alone, she talked about planning trips to her hometown in Vietnam and dreaming of home with her people, familiar food, and even the heat. I knew for fact that working people like herself were the most generous ones in donating money to causes or showing care for, and assistance to, those who needed her help back home even though she had become an American.

I came to know endless stories of working class in America, especially those with diverse ethnic backgrounds. In the 1980s and 1990s, during our annual federal law enforcement (MSPA) trips to farming areas in Gilroy, Monterey, and Napa, I witnessed how Mexican farm workers sacrificed for their families by living in inadequate, substandard housing while working up to 12 hours a day, saving money to send home in Mexico. Once I surveyed and uncovered extremely primitive housing conditions in Gilroy where a group of 10 Mexican workers lived together in one room, cooked on a broken old stove, bathed in a creek, and went to the bathroom in abandoned chicken coops. And each paid the Farm Labor Contractor $50 a month for that living arrangement.

But mainstream American workers also had their share of mistreatment. The bulk of my investigative work was in the area of government contracts. In one case, a group of former police officers reported to me a situation at a former Air Force Base where they worked.  Through my investigation, I discovered that the USDOD, in solving the security situation at a federal housing airbase with some 5,000 individual homes and no MPs (Military Police) due to the base closure, had hired retired police officers, paid them security guard rates, dressed them as DOD police, and assigned them duties belonged to the former Military Police classification, minus the arrest power—a classification that required higher pay. The problem was corrected and I gave credits to the workers who testified.

But other ethnic Americans often refused to speak up even for their benefits. In one case, a Romanian-American sub contractor working on a construction project under the Davis Bacon Act, at the Alameda NAS, would show in his book that he paid prevailing wage rates. But he had falsely reduced the actual hours worked otherwise the pay would be much less than the required rates, if using the correct number of hours. His workers, mostly Romanian-Americans would not testify, or provide me the facts. But I proved the violations nonetheless.

“How late did you and the crew work during the week of the October 17th, 1989?” I asked the Romanian-American contractor when I interviewed him in 1989.

“It’s in the book. 4PM every day. We left work even before 4PM,” the contractor answered. I changed the subject and began to talk about the weather, the traffic, then suddenly asked, “Oh, on October 17th, did you feel the Loma Prieta earthquake?”

“Yes, we were shaken by the impact and immediately stopped working. I told the workers, ‘This is a big one. A real big one,” and then we had to go home,” the man said, describing his shocking reaction with raised shoulders, slacked-mouth, and eyes rolled skyward.

Slowly, I looked deep into his eyes, “Do you remember what time the earthquake took place? 5:04PM. How late did you guys plan to work that evening if the earthquake did not occur?”

Among other cases, I received a few allegations that workers at Your Black Muslim Bakery in Berkeley were being abused. The employer, Yusef Bey, was from a cultural background of African American. The situation was brought to my attention through complaints after complaints filed by a non-Muslim employee at that Your Black Muslim Bakery. The complainant kept reporting that firearms being stored in the compound, foreigners being smuggled in, and employees being restrained, physically and sexually abused and intimidated. Yet there was no alleged government intervention to rescue the victims until after Bey’s death. Then, sometime around 2007, the Bakery went bankrupt and closed after the murder of a local journalist, Chauncey Bailey, who was investigating the allegations.

Over the years, I had become familiar with the way workers from different cultural backgrounds viewed their employment situations without taking consideration their legal and constitutional rights. As we investigated Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican, or Korean sweatshops, or Asian supermarkets, employers stonewalled us while the workers gave us a cold shoulder as if saying, “Leave us alone. You’re not helping us for coming here. You cause troubles for our employer, the business will suffer, and we lose our jobs. We don’t need your help.” 

One day I sat down next to a young Chinese garment-shop worker who was making buttonholes on a piece of garment and told her, “Look, I am not here to help you. I am here to get your help for me to understand why the labor law is irrelevant here. You will do me a favor by telling me the truth and I won’t take it against you and your co-workers. Please help me.”

Without looking up, she continued to operate the buttonhole sewing machine while answering me, “You see how slow I am with these buttonholes? An experience seamstress can do twice faster. Look at the elderly lady with a clipper over there. All she does all day is clipping the loose ends of the threads in each garment. How much do you think the owner can afford to pay us? Whenever I receive a garment for sewing, I can’t read the instructions so the owner has to show me how to do it, and she corrects my mistakes. I am grateful to her. I can’t get another job because I don’t speak English and have no real skills. So don’t tell me about minimum wages. I don’t want the pay. I want a job and I want to belong to this shop and be with these workers.” Then she added, “Where I am from, we accept. We don’t make wave.”

My recollection of the conversation with that garment-shop worker reminded me of another tragic working condition, which I considered worse than slavery in Medieval Times.

In 2007, I had some freelance jobs with the US ICE (Immigration Control Enforcement). They were investigating a Sex Tourism case whereas an American from LA, who went to Cambodia, bought a house and several Asian girls ages 9 to 14 to work in his house and to service his needs. The girls’ parents sold them for $500 (US dollars) each. $200 went to the broker and $300 to the parents. The girls had no schooling. So they performed housework and did what they were required to do to survive. I remember teaching the investigators to understand the cultural aspects of their interviews with the girls. For their birthdates the kids would say, “I was born in the year of the snake, or the rooster, or the cat.”  They did not know the calendar year of their birth. To describe a major event, they would say, “It happened before or after the New Year.” Approximately, a Vietnamese New Year takes place in February whereas in Thailand or Cambodia, it would be in April. And they used a myriad of terminology not found in the dictionary. After the investigation, the perpetrator was convicted on all 7 counts in the U.S. Federal Courts.

These cases are the exception not the norm. For the most parts, mainstream American workers have the option to exercise their rights under the law and/or through Union’s intervention. As the society evolves, some of the abuses have become things of the past. Sometime in 1990s, I trained a bright grad student from UC Berkeley, Dante, to be an investigator. My focus was changing the situations by changing people’s perceptions. After the training, Dante repeatedly told others the story how I had trained him—a story that made me blushed.

Dante would say, “At the Final Conference, I told the couple employers that they owed their employees nearly $20,000. They practically told me to bust off because they had no money to pay. I threatened to send the case to the Solicitors to no avail. I then asked Kim to intervene. She came in, sat down, leaned back, hands steepling showing a large, flashy rock on her ring finger, then told the couple, ‘Look, your employees have given you their time, energy, sweat, and a piece of their life. It’s only fair that you pay them. After all, it’s only money.’ The couple looked at each other. Then the wife told her husband, ‘She’s right, it’s only money.’ And they agreed to pay.”

Perhaps I was lucky.

P.S.  I touched three most sensitive subjects in my working life when I first mentioned in the above blog the trial of the murderer of a SF transgender prostitute, Ordenana, a trial that hit the SF transgender community very hard. Then I talked about the murder of one of the best Bay Area journalists at heart, Chauncey Bailey, who was murdered to stop his story of Your Black Muslim Bakery. Lastly, I wrote about my work with US ICE in which the perpetrator who went to Cambodia and purchased little girls to service him and he was convicted and sentenced to 210 years in prison.  I wish to express condolences to the victims. I hope the reader would think of them and show them some respect. These are the links to these true stories:  

END    © K. N. Roberts

No comments:

Post a Comment