Despite city crackdown, immigrants still are often cheated by job agencies
Cristina Rivas, 49, an immigrant from El Salvador, thought her one-year search for steady work had finally come to an end. A Queens employment agency that she had paid $120 said it had found her a job as a waitress at an upscale restaurant. She needed only to show up.
But when Ms. Rivas arrived at the “restaurant” last year, she encountered an atmosphere far different from what had been promised. Men whistled at female employees. Tips were offered for private dances. Distraught, she asked for a refund from the agency, but it refused.
“They exploited me,” Ms. Rivas said in Spanish. “They didn’t act like human beings. They treated me like a slave.”
In some of the poorest neighborhoods across the city, immigrants hoping to land jobs through employment agencies have routinely been cheated out of money. They are often charged hundreds of dollars in fees, promised jobs that do not exist, and sent to abusive working environments.
Three years ago, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, responding to an influx of complaints about employment agencies, pledged to root out wrongdoing through undercover inspections and mandatory training for the agencies. “The city is putting a stop to the widespread abuse and fraudulent behavior that for too long has cheated New Yorkers in need,” he said at the time.
But achieving that goal has proved vexing, complicated by what is often a fly-by-night business culture and by the reluctance of many immigrants to speak up. The city is up against an industry that has multiplied rapidly during the economic downturn — there are officially 350 agencies, but some advocates say the number exceeds 1,000. In the past six years, 36 have been shut down, but about 200 complaints a year come in, only a fraction of the probable violations.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” said Jonathan B. Mintz, commissioner of the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs, which is leading the effort to crack down on abusive agencies. “Achieving compliance in this industry is quite difficult.”
Owners of employment agencies acknowledge that there is abuse in the industry, but they say the city’s campaign has harmed the reputation of honest enterprises and hurt business.
“We are not here to exploit people,” said Antonio Ruiz, owner of Éxito Agencia de Empleo in Queens. “We are here to help them find work.”
For immigrants looking for a foothold in the economy, employment agencies are often the first stop. Many of these agencies are concentrated in Chinatown and Jackson Heights, Queens, both home to large immigrant communities.
Customers usually pay a fee of at least $100 to be placed in a job. The help in writing résumés and translating paperwork is especially enticing for illegal immigrants, who do not qualify for unemployment benefits.
Under city law, employment agencies are prohibited from guaranteeing applicants that they will find them jobs, and they are not permitted to place people in jobs that pay below minimum wage. Agencies are also required to provide a written contract, a detailed job description, and information on refunds and labor laws.
Consumers frequently complain that agencies require non-English speakers to sign contracts in English, or demand upfront payments, which in most cases are illegal. City officials say they have encountered agencies that plotted with businesses to dupe consumers and steal their money, and cases of women being sent for work to strip clubs, rather than to restaurants as they thought.
Adela Valdez, a community activist in Queens, said she had been cheated several times by employment agencies, including once when she was asked to work at a laundry for a one-week trial and was never compensated. She said elected officials should have done more to regulate the industry.
“Who are the laws for?” she said. “Those that have more money? We are the ones who have to work.”
Julissa Bisono, an organizer for Make the Road New York, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy group, said she often heard complaints from families about agencies that collected money one day and disappeared the next.
“It’s like you gave money to a ghost,” Ms. Bisono said. “Sometimes those are the last $100 that they have.”
Her group has begun an effort to educate immigrants about consumer rights and the perils of employment agencies.
Some state lawmakers are proposing legislation to increase fines against employment agencies to $500, from $100, for each day a violation continues, and to make it a misdemeanor to accumulate three or more violations in a five-year span.
State Senator Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat who has sponsored a bill requiring employment agencies to prominently post information about the rights of applicants, said many immigrants did not know where to turn for help. In Washington Heights, Mr. Espaillat said, he has noticed a new scheme: agencies that arrange work and transportation for immigrants but withhold their paychecks. “They’re taking advantage of folks that don’t know their rights,” said Mr. Espaillat, who represents parts of Manhattan and the Bronx. “It’s very dehumanizing.”
For Ms. Rivas, the immigrant from El Salvador, the job search continued. After calling the city’s 311 help line, she was able to get her money refunded. In all, the city has recovered more than $300,00 for customers cheated by employment agencies since 2005. She eventually found work as a nanny through another agency, working seven days a week to support her two children.
“We don’t have another way of finding work,” she said. “If you don’t speak English, you have to put your trust in them.”