Forbidden Workers

Forbidden Workers

by Peter Kwong


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Hailed by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “a must-read,” Forbidden Workers tells for the first time the full story of recent Chinese immigration to this country. Widely praised from the Wall Street Journal to Asian Week , the book uses the Chinese experience to shed light on broader issues of immigration from countries around the world. Author Peter Kwong has interviewed countless immigrant workers, activists, Chinatown powerbrokers, and “snakeheads” (smugglers who bring immigrants to the United States) and has traveled to China to talk with families of immigrants. The result is an unprecedented look at an invisible community within American society—and at a billion-dollar industry whose commodity is workers who labor under conditions approaching modern slavery.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781565843554
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 01/01/1998
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Peter Kwong was the author of several books, including Chinese America (with Dušanka Mišcevic); Chinatown, N.Y. ; and Forbidden Workers , all published by The New Press. He was a distinguished professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College and a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

What People are Saying About This

Manning Marable

"Well-craftedn and passionatley written, Forbidden Workers illustrates that the best social history can also make a powerful political statement." -- Columbia University

Frances Fox Piven

"A compelling account of the hidden world of the undocumented worker, of the smuggler networks who are the brutal enforcers of their exploitation, and of the low wage employers who benefit from the ceaseles toil of helpless people." -- Author (with Richard Cloward) of The Breaking of the American Social Compact

Aristide Zolberg

"Combining a profound grasp of the harsh dynamics of the new political economy with an intimate knowledge of the toils of Chinese immigrant workers, Peter Kwong guides us into the twilight world of 'snakes' and 'snakeheads' that surrounds us." -- Director, International Center for Migration, Ethnicity and Citizenship, New School for Social Research

Jonathan Spence

"A vivid portrait of the recent wave of illegal Chinese immigrants coming to the United States, and of the handlers or 'snakeheads' who control this billion-dollar business." -- Yale University

Gary Y. Okihiro

"Movingly and incisively told. Forbidden Workers is a human drama, indeed a thoroughly American story, of migrants and those who profit from their plight and labor." -- Author of Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture

Eric Foner

"A careful study of Chinese peasants uprooted to the sweatshops and restaurants of New York City. Rooting his analysis in the history of the economy, labor movement, and racial policy. Kwong shows how the system works, why it continues, and how it must be changed." -- Columbia University

Stanley Karnow

"Nobody understands the complexities of Chinatown better than Peter Kwong. Forbidden Workers vividly describes and analyzes its population, and sheds new light on the problems of fresh immigrants as they strive to adjust to Americas." -- winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Vietnam

David Montgomery

"A book of extraordinary importance... Kwong has combined the talents of an academic historian with those of an investigative reporter to write the clearest and most concise account I have yet read on the character of global migration today, its implications for the underming of existing labor standards, and the futility of the approaches that the U.S. government has employed in dealing with illegal immigration." -- Yale University


December 1997

Before the live chat, Peter Kwong agreed to answer some of our questions:

Q: I am curious to get your reaction to the recent headlines regarding Kathie Lee Gifford and the illegal Chinese immigrants.

A: Recent headlines regarding the Kathie Lee Gifford scandal indicate a continued deterioration of sweatshop conditions in New York's Chinatown, exactly as I had predicted in my book. Even after the national attention spurred by the exposé of Kathie Lee Gifford's K-Mart clothing line last summer, garment contractors continue labor abuses unabated (in this case we are not even talking about minimum wage but about not paying the workers for work already done), because they can count on the "passivity" of the immigrant workers, many of whom are illegal. They can also expect the ineffectiveness of labor authorities and the indifference of the manufacturers and labor unions. Violations in Chinatown are as rampant as ever. The only reason this recent scandal surfaced is because the workers at MSL Sportswear and Laura and Sarah Sportswear found out that their employers, who owed them $200,000 in back wages, closed their factories in the middle of the night and proceeded to remove machinery from the factories, presumably to new locations where they would open business under new corporate titles without honoring their debts. The labor department, media, local politicians, and the union were informed. Alas, the workers were reduced to silent witnesses as the employers' assets were moved away under police protection. The American public only learned of this outrage when the Kathie Lee Gifford connection to the two sweatshops was revealed. We must make public figures like Kathie Lee Gifford and all manufacturers accountable. We must make sure their goods are produced by decently paid workers. Most of all, if this nation is ever to get a handle on the immigration problem, we must not permit such gross labor violations to go unpunished, lest we encourage the arrival of more illegals.

Q: What is your general impression of New York City's Chinatown in 1997 compared to in years past?

A: The continued influx of large numbers of illegal immigrants who compete for low-wage jobs is making the conditions in Chinatown worse than ever. More workers are complaining of longer working hours (sometimes as long as 84 hours a week), lower wages (as low as $2 an hour), and the problem of withholding back wages by employers. This depressed condition discourages all but the most desperate, most of them illegals, to settle. The harsh working conditions affect the shops and restaurants in Chinatown as well, because fewer people are able to patronize them. Chinatown after dark is now like a ghost town.

Q: What do you think about the current immigration laws in the United States?

A: The present immigration laws are ineffective, even with the passage of the 1996 reform act, mainly because they do not attack the heart of the problem, i.e., the continued demand by employers for cheap and vulnerable labor. The new law tries to beef up the border control. This approach has never been effective, considering the size of our country and the infinite ability of organized crime to find new ways to smuggle illegals in -- unless we are willing to shut tight all the borders, waterways, and airspace and impose a national I.D. system at the cost of American freedom and liberties. Ultimately, we must see the illegal immigration as a labor and not an immigration issue, we must take away the incentive for employment to hire the illegals by imposing strong labor enforcement to ensure all workers decent and lawful wages.

Q: Was there any one thing that completely surprised you while researching Forbidden Workers?

A: I was constantly surprised by the degree of brutality the smugglers inflict on the illegals and the sophistication with which they impose their will on the victims. As it is, even if we see a suffering victim, we are not able to help. For instance, there is no way of freeing illegals if their debts are not paid; even if we free them physically here, their relatives in China are at risk. That's why the human smuggling problem is a complex international issue.

Q: Being a teacher at Hunter College and Princeton University, do you find that most of your students are undereducated and unaware of this country's current immigration situation?

A: Yes, I do find students in general undereducated and unaware of this country's immigration issues, because immigration issues have always been discussed in simplistic and absolute terms. We tend, in popular discourse, to discuss immigrants as either good or bad for America. Problematic positions like these obscure the complexity of immigration issues. In teaching, I have to clear away a lot of myth and misunderstanding first before beginning to tackle real issues.

Americans don't and will never agree on the merits of immigration. Members of the business and employer community usually welcome more immigrants to come because that lowers their wage costs. The majority of Americans, on the other hand, according to all previous public-opinion surveys, have been shown to be wary of immigrants. They see the newcomers as competition for their jobs and opportunities. Yet the presence of immigrants reflects the very makeup of this nation's identity, for all its good and bad qualities. It is very difficult intellectually for students (and for that matter all of us) to accept that in devising immigration policies, we are dealing with a lot of ambiguity that requires compromises.

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