Meet the Workers Who Are Exploited at $5 an Hour to Make Your Breakfast Sandwiches
On any given night in New York City, while most of us are sleeping, an entire workforce is moving through the streets. They’re taking the elevated 7 train out to Elmhurst, Queens on their way home from late shifts, cleaning midtown office buildings and delivering boxes of fresh produce to cavernous restaurant basements.
Immigration activists like to use rhetoric about “living in the shadows” to describe the status of the undocumented, but for many without papers, life literally is conducted in shadows, as they work through the night to support themselves and send remittances home. In New York, these undocumented laborers work in construction, childcare, and above all else, in the food service industry.
In The Hand That Feeds, a powerful documentary opening in theaters on April 3, filmmakers Robin Blotnick and Rachel Lears chronicle the plight of workers at one Upper East Side deli. At the 63rd Street location of Hot & Crusty, employees—many of whom are undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Ecuador and elsewhere—toil seven days a week for less than minimum wage, with no overtime pay or sick leave. They receive a constant stream of verbal abuse and threats from their manager, who frequently reminds them that at any moment they could be fired and deported. In one of the opening scenes, a worker shows his payment for a 60-hour workweek: $290 in cash, stuffed into an unmarked white envelope.
Using news clips to provide context, the film charts the workers’ years-long struggle to improve their labor conditions and reclaim their dignity. Initially, their demands were limited: backpay for stolen wages, sick days, overtime pay, and safe conditions. But as their campaign gathered momentum, aided by the crucial assistance of the Laundry Workers Center, a volunteer organization that supports low-wage workers, and activists from Occupy Wall Street, which was then in its nascent stages, the Hot & Crusty workers began asking for more. Ultimately, in order to legally oblige the companies to offer any benefits, they realized they needed to form a union.
A worker behind the counter at Hot & Crusty. (Credit: Eleazar Castillo)
Their efforts, led by Mahoma LÃ³pez, a charismatic longtime Hot & Crusty worker who immigrated to Queens from Mexico, are complicated by the complex legal structure of their employer. Instead of a chain, Hot & Crusty is a group of independent companies that are franchised under different names and owned by overlapping groups of investors. Other brands that fall under their umbrella include EuroPan, Bread Factory and Ray’s Famous Original, but not all of the stores with those names are connected, and the same labor practices may not be in place at all of the locations. This fractured management structure undoubtedly makes it easier to hire undocumented immigrants while avoiding detection from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and also creates problems for workers who are trying to organize.
As filmmaker Robin Blotnick put it in a phone interview, “ICE’s priority is bigger businesses, and this branch was employing under two dozen people at the time…And because it’s a bunch of independent companies that are franchised under different names, going after all the Hot & Crustys just wouldn’t make sense legally.”
Though the Obama administration has attempted to crack down on larger companies that employ undocumented workers, launching investigations and issuing heavy fines, significant sectors of the U.S. economy continue to rely on undocumented labor. The 8.1 million unauthorized immigrants employed in the U.S. represent 5.1 percent of the U.S. labor force, according to the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project, and industries like construction, food service, hospitality and agriculture rely heavily on immigrant labor. Yet even though undocumented workers pour $11.2 billion per year into local and state tax coffers, and help to keep our Social Security Trust Fund solvent, they face rampant workplace abuse, unsafe conditions and wage theft.
As Margarito LÃ³pez, one of the workers featured in the film, says, “They say that we’re criminals but they’re the real criminals. They’re the ones that are stealing our wages.”
Undocumented workers are in a unique position when it comes to activism. Though they have the right to organize under the National Labor Relations Act, and are covered, at least in the state of New York, by wage protection acts, many are reluctant to come forward about workplace abuse because they fear deportation. Several of the Hot & Crusty workers interviewed in the film say they were not politically active in their home countries, and only became engaged over the course of their campaign. According to Mahoma, who now volunteers as an organizer for the Laundry Workers Center, “In organizing, you realize that changes in society are made by movements.”
Workers demonstrate outside the 63rd Street location. (Credit: Jed Brant)
After months of walkouts, strikes, store occupations, setbacks, and attempted bribes, the workers prevailed. Under their new union, the Hot & Crusty Workers Association, their contract allows them to take vacation and sick days, to determine which employees the company hires, and requires their employer to have just cause for firing them.
Just months after they won their campaign, the first fast-food workers walkout was held in New York City. In one of the film’s closing scenes, Hot & Crusty workers stop by a strike at the Times Square McDonald’s, looking stunned at the number of people who have gathered in the winter night to protest service worker exploitation. Mahoma, Margarito and their coworkers stand behind police barricades, the lights of neon signs reflecting off their faces, as the crowd shouts, “We can’t survive on $7.25.”
The Hand That Feeds is a moving testament to the power of collective organizing, coalition building and the incredible work that has been accomplished by the low-wage worker movement over the last few years. According to Blotnick, “It shows that tactics some people might see as very radical, like occupying stores, can actually pay off. It’s an uphill battle, but our film shows that victories are possible when you take really big risks and you fight really hard.”