Behind Swing Doors: South Asian Workers Speak

New York is famous as a city that dazzles epicureans and gourmands, resident or touring, with its astounding variety of ethnic and gourmet foods, usually available at affordable rates. Immigrant laborers bear the burden of maintaining this reputation, at a cost that could upset some people's appetites. If restaurant prices have, at least at the lower end, defied inflation and remained at the same level for fifteen years or more, it is because of working conditions that belong to another century. South Asian restaurants are no exception, and a casual conversation with a waiter or a scullion can sometimes be hair-raising. With the enormous influx of Bangladeshi immigrants into the city, New York has seen an enormous increase in "Indian" restaurants, run by Bangladeshis. We should note that most South Asian restaurants belong to a competitive, low-end segment of the market. The hierarchy in the world of ethnic foods reflects geopolitical eminence more than culinary excellence. French cuisine commands higher prices than Greek cuisine, Japanese cuisine more than Chinese, and South Asian food is a little further down in the pecking order. In this issue, then, we offer a glimpse of the scenes behind the restaurant swing doors, speaking to some workers at a Manhattan Indian restau rant.

The interviews were conducted by the Bangla Samar group: Nargis Akhter, Nahar Alam, and Anannya Bhattacharjee. They were translated from Bangla to English by Anannya.

Indian Restaurant, Manhattan

Qasim: I arrived here from Bangladesh in 1990. After coming here, I started work on 6th Street. After working here for six months I went to Washington. There also I worked in a restaurant — and here also [I worked in a] restaurant .... There I worked for about eight years in two or three places. Then I came back to 6th Street. I work mainly as a cook. I do everything — tandoor, appetizers, everything. Sweets also — rosogolla, gulab jamun, kheer and so on. I have learned all this on the job gradually.

Work begins at noon and till 3pm is lunch and then till 5pm people are still coming in and out — could be as many as thirty to forty between lunch and dinner. By the time I get time to take a breath and stand properly, it can be l0pm — by that time 200 customers would have come and gone. I have to wait around till midnight. Then at midnight I get out and come home. By the time I take a bath, change clothes and eat, it can be 2:30 or 3am. I work six days and I get one day off. This is our life.

Now if I talk about what is good or bad about the job — how can I explain all this? There is no use talking about the kitchen. When work is going on in the kitchen, it is like working inside a fire. The exhaust fan does not work. There is one fan but when the fan is turned on and the burners are on then, we find that the heat from the burner is even more intensified by the fan. Sometimes it is so intolerable that I have to step out for a little while and go to the customer area where there is an air conditioner. The exhaust fan does not really work. It is like the inside of hell.

In the kitchen, there is one dishwasher, one breadman and myself, the cook. Outside, there is a manager, there is a busboy and waiters. All in all eleven people work in the restaurant. Different workers in the restaurant get different kinds of wages. Waiters work mostly on tips; the wages are so low they are unmentionable. In six days, a waiter can earn about $275- — some over $300. Busboys get much less. Cooks are paid the most, tandoor cooks are next, then the dishwasher and so on. But our employer does not give us the salary we deserve for the work we do. I have never met anyone in these jobs who is working happily. Everyone works — some do not have papers and need to go on working. Or it may be some other problem. Is there friendship among those who work in the restaurants? Well, after work, everyone goes to their various homes. No one is in the mood to chat together. Some go to the groceries, buy what is needed and go home. Some have family, some are bachelors. Bachelors go home and do their work that is left at home. Family folks go home to be with their family. Some live far, some live nearby.

My brother's family is here. But my own family is in Bangladesh. It is eleven years since I went to Bangladesh. So I have not seen my family for this time. I call them, send them letters through people going to Bangladesh. They do not have money to call me from Bangladesh. I send money every month. My children are studying — I send money for their education. Every month I send half my salary to Bangladesh. Two of my children are studying. I have a wife. I have three daughters who have now been married. I have one son and one daughter left who are still studying.

When you have to work, you work — I go to work in the morning and return at night. This life we have here — you cannot really call this a life. When some tension happens in my family - I worry about how my children are doing. In between work hours, these worries filter through and fill in my mind. The days pass by like this. The owners of course just watch for their advantages. They make their business go ahead by coercing one person or threatening two others to get the work done. Sometimes, it is really hard. I feel like leaving my job on the spot sometimes and going away. Why am I doing this? I need the money — I have to work to fill our stomachs.

Bangladeshi Restaurant, Queens

Munir: My life was beautiful in Bangladesh. Suddenly, I got into a situation which forced me to leave. I went to Kuwait and then got an opportunity to come here.

I came to earn money and to see the place. I have been here for almost five years. I began immediately by working in a restaurant. I joined first in a cleaning job at a restaurant. I did not know any restaurant work. In three years I learned a lot of the different jobs-making sweets, cooking main dishes and other things. When I started I was supposed to work ten to twelve hours a day. But I have worked upto eighteen hours a day because I wanted to learn. I used to work six, often seven days a week. I worked very hard. I did not know anything before and I know a lot more now.

I think we have to work in Bangladeshi and Indian restaurants because we do not find other jobs. It is illegal in one way and in another way, I cannot call it illegal also. Because at least they have given us a job. It is better to work at a low-wage job than to not have a job at all. I believe everyone should get legal wages. But this is rare in our Bangladeshi or Indian restaurants. Why, I don't know. Does any worker get legal wages when they enter the job? I actually do not know what they are supposed to get (Laughs) I think they get a little cheated. Some places give $100 per week and some give $200 per week. I used to get $150 for seven days. My salary gradually went up over months as I learned the work.

After coming here, we first do mainly cleaning jobs. Actually in our country, cleaning is not considered a job. It is considered a job only in America. For the time I was cleaning, the salary was fine. Why? Because I could not get a job anywhere. I did not know anyone. Where would I work? I do not understand English. Many say my salary was illegal. But I consider that for me that was correct. Now I know more and can work for more money. My desire was to learn something. I cleaned seriously — everyone was happy with me and I work hard. My bosses know the quality of my work.

I did not know anything before. When I reached a point where I knew more, more responsibility came onto me. For example, when I learned to make sweets — then my responsibility was to make sweets only. Then I began to have more regular hours — I would work ten to twelve hours — I would have to make sure that I finish a certain amount of work. On many occasions there would he extra orders and then I would have to work thirteen to fourteen hours once or twice a week to finish everything. Before, I used to work more hours to learn about restaurant work like making sweets, cooking main dishes. Once I learned I fixed my hours and arranged my work. Now I work about twelve to thirteen hours a day six days a week. I am a cook and have two helpers and I have to make all the dishes.

It is terribly hot in the kitchen where I work. In this situation at least if the bosses keep things in order it is still possible to do the work properly. But a lot of the times, you will find that one burner is working but another one is not. It is very difficult then. The heat is tremendous. One burner is equivalent to ten burners in your home. Altogether four burners are on all the time. If someone from the outside just steps into the kitchen he will feel like he is entering a fireball. They cover their faces with their hands.

How do customers treat us? There usually are some regular customers who loved to talk with me and even when I would work at the back they would call me to the front to talk with me. There were other customers who I do not know what they thought — they thought of me differently — like a cockroach. They think badly of the work yet they are eating the food that we are cooking. Their expression would make us feel that we were from some strange planet. Among Bangladeshis, these divisions are there. Oh, he works in a Bangladeshi restaurant [they may say].

And bosses? I am sometimes happy and sometimes very angry with bosses. Because just as bosses can be nice — sometimes, they can be horrible too. The harder I work, better it is for them. If I am not able to do the work properly or I fall sick and cannot work for a week, the bosses change their tune. They think only of themselves and little about us. If anyone falls sick, they want the person to go on working in that state. If they hire someone else, my job is gone. What will I do? During those times, I get very angry with bosses.

Fast Food Restaurant, Manhattan

Maybe we can start with how you came to the US?

Jihad: I came here almost four years ago. I came on DV lottery and I got my current job through my relative and till now I am working at the same place.

Dinar: I also came here a few years ago on DV visa. I joined my job through a friend of mine.

Where do you all work?

[Together]: Manhattan. In a pizza store.

Is the owner non-South Asian?

[Together]: Yes.

Mehboob: I work in a KFC. My employer is a Pakistani.

Why do you think so many people get jobs through friends and family?

Jihad: The point is that at the beginning people have language problems. Also, to get around in New York, they have to know the subway map. So they go to a relative who helps them understand the map. New people cannot talk properly when they look for jobs.

How was your routine at work?

Mad: My routine changed every week. Either 10-6 or 6-2.

Mehboob: Some places you have to worklonger — maybe 9 or 8 till 6.

Dinar: Our hours are 8 hours a day. The routine depends on the employer totally.

How many days off?

Jihad: Usually six days work, and one day off.

Mehboob: In this country, there is no payment for holidays as in our country. If I take a day off I do not get paid that day.

Can you describe your work?

Jihad: When I started work I had no experience. Because I did not know how the food was made and how to handle customers, I started as a deliveryman. When I started my salary was very low — like $3.50 per hour although according to state laws it is supposed to be over $5 per hour.

Do the employers pay you properly whatever you are supposed to get?

Jihad: No, they do not pay properly. Because when we go for delivery, customers give tips.

Dinar: This is a good question. Actually they do not pay us what they should and in Manhattan, all fast food places are like that.

Jihad: But it is true that if you work according to the wishes of an American employer, you can also get opportunities, I worked as a deliveryman for one year and in between, after I learned the work a bit, my employer took me inside. He taught me other work. Americans, particularly white Americans, like and trust Bangladeshis because they work sincerely.

Mehboob: They like our sacrificing minds and trustworthiness. By sacrificing mind I mean that if my employer asks me to work on off days, I work but other American workers will not. We respond to the employers' requests, others do not.

Do the employers respond to your requests?

Dinar: If the employer finds that there are enough people to run the store then he will. He may not pay but he will listen to our request.

How is the work itself?

Jihad: Work is very hard. After I clock in, I do not have a minute to stand still. If I work for eight hours, I have to work every minute and second of it.

Don't you have a specific break time?

Jihad: If the work is slow we figure out among ourselves break times. But there is no assigned break time.

Do you get paid for break time?

Jihad: No. Payment only applies to work time. During break time we have to clock out.

Working for South Asians or white Americans — what are your opinions [on which is better]?

Mehboob: Asian employers tend to have an ordering mentality. They use a commanding tone. But employers here tend to be polite.

Jihad: It is not that all Americans are good or all Asians are bad. But still overall... For example, the wife of an employer from this country will ask permission before using the phone in the store. But you cannot expect that from Asians. Asians have an "I am employer" mindset.

Dinar: Payment and good behavior from employers are both equally important. My point is I will do the work and the employer should pay and behave nicely.

Looks like even after you do the work for your American employer, you are not getting the payment you would like to get.

Dinar: The most important issue is language and the color of our skin. So we will never get paid as much as people do here.


Dinar: They will think Americans are from their own country. They feel we have no place to go and at least they are not throwing us out.

Jihad: When a white person and I work in the same position, you will find that the employer speaks nicely to the white person but not with me. I don't like that at all.

If you want to change the conditions under which you work, how would you do it?

Jihad: In our country, workers do not easily and politely negotiate with employers. They challenge through agitation and demonstration. That is not possible here.

Dinar: Your question is a good one. See everyone has problems. Workers do and so do employers. It is true that employers often do not want to listen to anything. But there are also workers who do not want to see the employers' point of view. What would be best is if good relationships' could be built up between employers and workers. Then there is no need for agitation and demonstration.

At this point in time, are there such relationships in the world?

Dinar: No they exist nowhere on this earth. In our country there is agitation and organizing, here it is not possible. So we have no other choice but to work with our emplyers. Otherwise, how can you keep getting one job after another?

You said it is not possible to agitate and demonstrate here. Do you know that you can?

Dinar: Maybe I can. But the point is we are not organized. Let me give you an example of bad behavior. My co-worker and I get the same salary. But my employer will tell me — your salary is more so do not tell anyone. He will tell my co-worker the same thing. But we two know about each other's salary. This is what is called politicking and it is dues to this that divisions are created.

Jihan: The issue here is that no one is organized. If everyone was organized, then change would be possible.


I am glad to see that they workers are stepping here. They have to speak their mind on this. So much will come from this in the future. Will Davidson LLP The interviews were conducted by the Bangla Samar group: Nargis Akhter, Nahar Alam, and Anannya Bhattacharjee. They were translated from Bangla to English by Anannya.

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