The employment agency is nestled on the third floor above a shop in New York City. No sign outside suggests its existence. Inside, there is an undecorated, white-walled office where a dozen middle-aged Chinese immigrants sit and wait in nervous silence. The owner of the agency is a heavyset woman. She snacks on walnuts from a foam cup as she considers people’s job requests.
“I have a job as a cook at a Vietnamese restaurant,” she tells a man in his 50s.
“A Vietnamese restaurant?” he asks. “But I’ve never had Vietnamese food.”
“It’s just noodles,” she says. “They use a different sauce than we do. That’s all. Give them a call and try it out for a day.”
He pays $60 for the job offer. I catch the tail end of this conversation. It is not clear where the restaurant is located.
“Were you smuggled in?” the agency owner asks me.
“No,” I say.
I was born and raised in Maryland. My Mandarin has an American accent. I later realize it was a mistake to admit my legal status. The woman asks me a few questions about what type of restaurant jobs I want. She says she’ll call me if anything comes up.
She doesn’t call. Other employment agencies I contact also do not return my calls after hearing my Mandarin.
Some Chinese restaurants hire undocumented Chinese and Latino workers, pay them well below minimum wage and make them work 12-hour shifts six days a week but offer free housing and food. These workers often are packed at night into roach-infested apartments and houses. Sometimes they are forced to sleep on cardboard in the basements of restaurants. They make $800 to $2,000 a month—regardless of how many hours they work.
Much of their pay goes to fees charged by traffickers and smugglers—known in Chinese as “snakeheads”—and to private employment agencies that charge clients for finding them a job. The smugglers, like the agencies, do not advertise. Snakeheads charge $60,000 to $80,000 to smuggle someone into the United States. They have networks of enforcers, which means that, if you do not pay, you or your family members in China will be subject, until the money is paid, to beatings or even death.
Restaurant jobs in big cities fill up fast. There are more immigrants looking for work in cities, where wealthier customers tip generously. Most employment agencies in the area where I applied specialize in sending immigrants to jobs in remote towns where Chinese restaurants are often short of staff. Once offered a job, an immigrant often has to be on a bus within hours and can soon find him- or herself halfway across the country.
My legal status and my American-accented Mandarin are impediments. Labor trafficking, which can take place before the immigrant is smuggled into the country, is dependent on the powerlessness of the worker. Snakeheads routinely lie about jobs, wages and employment conditions, knowing that once workers are in the United States they are unable to appeal to law enforcement. It is also common for snakeheads and employers to confiscate passports and identity documents in order to hold workers hostage.
These snakeheads do not only traffic in Chinese workers. They routinely “buy” undocumented Latino workers who have crossed into the United States from Mexico and drive them to Chinese restaurants around the country where they, too, are held in bondage. Those who traffic human beings also often traffic drugs, carrying narcotics along with their human cargo across state lines.
“Employment agencies buy Mexicans at the border from smugglers and sell them to Chinese employers,” said a former snakehead I’ll call Edward, whom I interviewed in Atlanta. For one year, an employment agency paid Edward $2 per mile to pick up undocumented Latino immigrants from Fort Myers, Fla., and drive them to the agency in Georgia. The employment agency owner would pack the Latino migrants into crowded rooms in a nearby apartment complex while he waited for Chinese restaurant owners to purchase the immigrants like indentured servants.
“Chinese restaurant owners don’t pay Mexicans for the first two months of work. They pay the smugglers instead,” Edward told me. “They pay $1,000 per person, maybe $1,200 per person, to the smuggler.”
After two months, restaurant owners typically begin to pay new Latino workers $800 a month. They tend to work in the kitchen, so they don’t receive tips. In busy restaurants, experienced kitchen workers might eventually make up to $2,000 a month.
The employment agencies, restaurants and human smugglers have informal ties to one another, which makes it efficient to supply cheap labor but difficult for authorities to prosecute. Most of these labor agencies are never charged with trafficking.
I change my tactics when I enter a second employment agency in New York City. The office is not much larger than a walk-in closet.
“Hello, little sister,” a woman greets me in Mandarin from behind the counter. The small space behind her counter is stuffed with notebooks, instant-noodle packs and an electric kettle.
I speak haltingly. I give vague answers about my ability to speak English. She doesn’t ask about my immigration status.
I tell her I’m looking for a busgirl job. I decide on busgirl because I have limited Chinese writing skills and would struggle to write orders down in Chinese.
“The closest job is four hours away,” she says.
“That’s fine,” I say.
She begins calling restaurant employers across North America and mumbles a few words to them before handing me the receiver. I get on the phone with a Chinese restaurant owner in Indiana.
“We’ll pay $2,000 a month. Food and housing is on us,” he says. “Everyone sleeps at my house. It’s very nice. You can sleep upstairs with the girls. Or, if you want, you can sleep downstairs with me and the boys.”
Sexual harassment is commonplace for female immigrants working in Chinese restaurants. The hint was stated clearly. I knew from speaking with other women that if I arrived and did not have sex with the employer, I would probably be fired. These women say that in the group houses, the male employees openly watch pornography, pressure the women to have sex and masturbate in front of them.
Without legal status or documents, unable to speak English, dependent on employers for every necessity of life, including the ride to and from work, without the ability to send money home to families or make trips to the drugstore or the bank, these women are virtually enslaved. They know that should they resist the sexual desires of the boss they will be instantly penniless, homeless and subject to deportation. Being trapped in one of these houses where the men demand sexual service is my greatest fear.
The lewd restaurant owner decides not to hire me because I don’t have enough experience.
The woman at the agency puts me on the phone with Chinese restaurant owners in Canada, Maryland and Alabama. They all say I don’t have enough experience, or that I’m not from their region in China. The woman gives up and starts to interview other applicants clustered around her.
A Chinese man in his early 20s, wearing earphones, walks in. He asks if there are takeout delivery jobs. She says the closest job is four hours away. He walks out.
She offers agricultural jobs to an elderly couple. They say they are not physically able to do farm work.
Depending on one’s age, legal status and English proficiency, these underground employment agencies offer jobs that range from farmer to dental assistant. Restaurant jobs, especially kitchen jobs, require the least amount of English and training. The most vulnerable immigrants are sent there.
I wait three more hours. The woman periodically calls other restaurants. I read the New York City Consumer Affairs Agency license and New York employment law posters plastered on the wall.
The posters include information about minimum wage. They explain that there is a maximum fee that employment agencies can charge for placing someone in a job. The fee cannot exceed 30 percent of a worker’s first full-month salary. The agency is legally required to provide a refund if the job doesn’t work out. These posters are in English and Spanish—but not in Chinese. I suspect I am the only person looking for work here who understands them.
Suddenly, the woman hands me the telephone and tells me to “sound confident.” I speak with a Chinese buffet owner in Georgia. She tells me she’s looking for someone from northern China because her current busboy is from there.
I’m hired. She tells me to get on the 8 p.m. bus that night and to bring black clothing. She abruptly hangs up.
I’m charged a $35 fee for this match. I’m supposed to pay the rest of the fees after I begin working. It is unclear how much I owe the agency in total.
The woman hands me a piece of paper with the phone numbers of the bus driver and the restaurant owner. Nothing is on it about employment terms. The wages, fees, deposit and balance are left blank. She tells me nothing about my employment rights.
I ask if I have free housing and food, since the owner in Georgia did not address the issue.
“Of course these restaurants give you free housing and food,” she said with annoyance. “You’ll have to work more than 10 hours a day. How can they not?”
“You don’t even speak English very well,” she tells me. “You have no experience. This is a very good deal for you. You should be grateful, little sister.”
Read the second part of this investigative report here.