May Day celebration focuses on worker rights

By Prem Calvin Prashad

Sunday, in a show of cross-cultural solidarity, approximately 50 Hispanic and South Asian workers rallied at Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights on International Workers Day, to call attention to labor abuses and other harassment they face from employers.

The event, organized by the Queens Museum, consisted of a rally and a march, featuring advocacy groups Desis Rising Up and Moving, Chhaya CDC and New Immigrant Community Empowerment, all based in Jackson Heights. The efforts by the Queens Museum are part of an ongoing campaign to empower communities in various plazas across the borough. The event incorporated arts, including a collaborative mural featuring the motifs of opposition to border walls and anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as a Spanish language spoken-word performance.

Organizers hoped to create a community space for workers to discuss issues they have had with employers, including unpaid wages and unsafe working conditions. “I think we’re trying to empower the immigrant workers in this community to find their own voice,” said William Spisak, an Asset Building Program Manager at Chhaya CDC. “Being in Diversity Plaza, in Jackson Heights, the idea is to get the workers out of the woodwork, feeling empowered to share their stories.”

Several workers spoke and their words were translated into Bangla, Spanish and English by organizers, including Alexandra Garcia, a Coordinator with the Queens Museum. Workers from NICE recounted their advocacy for day laborers, including the development of an app for laborers to document contractors that neglect to pay them or commit labor abuses. The organizers also spoke on efforts to create a community center for day laborers, as well as coordinated action to raise wages for jobs they accept to $15 an hour.

The rally led to a march around the neighborhood by DRUM and NICE, accompanied by a mariachi band. Demonstrators blew whistles and chanted slogans, chastising abusive employers.

DRUM organizers also spoke on the rights of street vendors in the community. The vendors, which sell religious items, have clashed with local merchants and in particular, the Jackson Heights Bangladeshi Business Association, according to a DRUM press release. The business organization has alleged the vendors have led to crime and littering. “These are the same businesses that pay workers in this neighborhood $3, $4 an hour,” said Fahd Ahmed, Executive Director of DRUM. “We know what the interests of these businesses are, and it’s not in the interest of workers.”

According to street vendor Mohammad Bishwas, the feud led to the involvement of the NYPD, who, allegedly with the auspices of the JBBA, threatened the vendors April 27 with possible arrest or a fine of $5,000, according to Ahmed. Marchers converged on the headquarters of the JBBA, on 74th Street, before proceeding to a building owned by a JBBA committee member.

After the march, participants returned to Diversity Plaza and several demonstrators proceeded to a larger May Day gathering, in Manhattan.

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