Hosts and Producers: Yi Ding and Chenxi Wu
Guests: Zishun and Kathy
[Transcript has been slightly modified for reading experience.]
New York City, often regarded as a progressive and the cultural-financial hub of the US, stands out for an unsettling reason. It is the only place where immigrant women of color working as home attendants are compelled to endure grueling 24-hour workdays. These dedicated caregivers tend to elderly, chronically ill, and severely disabled individuals, providing essential services such as bathing, mobility assistance, cooking, and more. It's challenging work, yet in the rest of New York State and across the US, 24-hour care for these vulnerable patients is typically provided by two workers in 12-hour shifts or three workers in 8-hour shifts, as it should be.
In September, Ding and Chenxi from the Xin Sheng Project engaged in a conversation with Zishun and Kathy, two passionate organizers of the 'Ain’t I a Woman' campaign, dedicated to ending the 24-hour workday. As they aptly put it, this practice amounts to “a crime against humanity. Through 24-hour workdays, home attendants are quickly turned into patients themselves. Doing grueling work without sleep, they develop back and arm injuries, permanent disabilities, insomnia, depression, heart disease, and high blood pressure. They lose relationships with their children and spouses, since they are never home. On top of that, for every 24-hour workday, home care agencies and insurance companies break the law, and only pay workers 13 hours of wages. Why does our city allow insurance companies and home care agencies to take every minute of women’s lives, for their own profits?”
Listen to our conversation to discover what led Zishun and Kathy into the realm of labor organizing and why this battle extends beyond combating sexism, racism, and classism—it matters to all of us. Prepare to be enlightened by their insights into activism and strategies for tackling frustration and burnout.
Yi Ding: Let's start with my personal experience. I bumped into the post that Zishun shared on WeChat this morning. It was a video that your organization published in 小红书, the Red, about struggles of middle aged women, which really broke my heart because of my personal experience taking care of my mom. We have been having a stay-at-home nanny for over 10 years, and I really appreciate her labor and her care. So that really brought me to this whole journey of reflecting on all the work activists like you supporting other immigrants of color, women of color. So could you share more about what brought you into this work, labor organizing, specifically for New York City?
Kathy: Hi, my name is Kathy. I am a tech worker by trade. I do software engineering, I've been working for about 10 years. And I've been very active in this campaign, the Ain’t I Woman campaign, to organize with home attendants and workers of all trades to end the 24 hour work day, which is really systemic racism. I grew up in this country, the US, and as an Asian American woman, experienced discrimination, racism, sexism. And I think for a lot of my life, even in my career, I was looking for answers. How do we stop this racism? Why does it happen? How do we fight it? And then I learned about this campaign that a lot of hundreds of immigrant women are fighting to stop 24 hour work days, because it really destroys their health, it really destroys their family, at a time that I personally was also having to work very long hours in tech work. Seeing how it impacted my health, my physical health, my mental health, made me often very depressed. I could see that a lot of people around me are also suffering, like from being exploited from experiencing racism. At that time, when I found out about it, there was also an uptick in street violence against Asian people, especially Asian women. And many of us were wondering, how do we stop this? Then I found out that, in fact, there's actually a 24 hour work day that immigrant women are forced to work, and that immigrant women are fighting against this. And I wanted to learn more. Now I really see it as, this is us, all working people fighting against the system, systemic racism, and exploitation that is hurting all of us. By participating in organizing, I'm really fighting back.
Zishun: My name is Zishun, I am an organizer with the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, which is also part of the Ain’t I a Woman campaign. I started volunteering at the Workers Center around 2015 when I was a graduate student at City University of New York. In college, you always learn “this system is bad, it is racism, exploitation”, but then usually the school doesn't teach you how to fight back. It was until I really tried to look for an answer and come out of the school and get involved with the fights. At that time, homecare organizing had just started. And the home attendant really kind of picked it up. The fight against a 24 hour workday as the most serious exploitation imaginable. Because in school we learned about the labor history and the 8 hour workday in the past, but how come today the 24 hour workday? That really opened me up, and that's something school never taught me. When you get involved in the organizing, you've learned we can fight back. I would have to fight back by coming together with other workers. We cannot just intellectualize all this. You need to really do something, and that also changes my condition and my thinking from before only a college student who tried to analyze things, thinking that there is nothing you can do, and staying depressed, and now, picking this up as my own issue. Now I need to break through the kind of surface that the system is okay to really make the change.
Kathy: The system, our government in New York City, is saying that it's okay if workers have to work for every single minute of their life, because this is happening, and many of the politicians are saying like, Oh, well, of course, we don't like it, but what can you do, you can stop it? Actually, I remember now when I first got involved, many home attendants and other workers had already been fighting for many years. But at that time, some of the original workers who stood up worked for the Chinese American Planning Council (CPC), which is a big Asian American social services nonprofit, I think one of the biggest in the US. They also have one of the biggest homecare agencies in the state of New York, they employed thousands of Asian, mostly Chinese immigrant women, and forced them to work 24 hours a day, and only paid them for 12 or 13 hours of their work. It's really destroying women's health, where all of them have insomnia, many of them have had to get surgeries in their arm and their back, because of how they're constantly lifting patients without any break, and many have depression because of it too. It just made me really angry at not only how bad the condition is. If we don't work 24 hour workdays, it's hard to even imagine because when we stay up, like doing a lot of work for school or for a job, it already makes us feel very bad. It feels like it's hurting us a lot. And then this is just 24 hours a day, every single day. And then the person, the group, the employer that's doing this to these Chinese women is a Chinese nonprofit that is claiming that they're helping Chinese immigrants. They're saying that they're fighting racism. They're saying the government, give us money, because we are fighting anti-Asian violence. And they're really the ones who are perpetrating violence.They're treating Asian women like garbage, and they're making the whole society look down on Asian women. How can any society respect people that are treated like we're completely disposable, like our life doesn't matter at all? How can anyone respect us? So this is really why other people in the society may look down on us because of the Chinese American Planning Council and other sweatshops that treat our own people like this.
Zishun: Yeah, it's also worth noting that the first time I heard about CPC was in school. When I was doing my undergrad, the CPC would partner with the school to send some college students to do some volunteer work for an after school program. I bet that most students know about CPC as good or organizations that do a good job serving the community. They probably also heard that they're fighting anti-Asian violence, that kind of stuff in the mainstream. That's the organization that's being celebrated. And that's the kind of organization that many of these professors, schools we work with. I'm sure many of them claim to be progressive, liberal. As a student, anyone interested in trying to fight against racist violence, we do need to take another step, right, we're not just like, oh, I come to serve a community, I spent an hour helping the after school program, helping the kids, that's my way of contributing. But really, come into organizing! We always see ourselves just outside the community, even though you maybe spend your time in a community, but actually organizing together (will allow you) to see that we also have our own stake in it, whether it be at school or come out working, we also face similar problems, and it's in all of us interests to really fight back to stop these kinds of unlimited kind of long hours exploitation. If 24 hours and these kinds of racist violence can continue to exist, then it's gonna hurt all of us, because there's no bottom line, right? Everyone can say, oh, we've looked at the homecare workers, they can work all these long hours if possible, so you can do that too.
Yi Ding: Totally, you really touched upon some very important themes that I think I kept thinking about when I'm organizing in the Los Angeles area. But what's most striking to me is the performative nature of a lot of the diversity or anti Asian hate, anti racism initiatives people are doing, whether it's the organization that you're mentioning, or just students and individuals who think that they're doing something at the end of the day to (support) say, the anti-racism cause, but what they're really doing is reproducing all the inequities or not something that really matters to the real community, or the people that are suffering the most. So thank you for bringing that up. I love how you are connecting your personal experience to a cause, while you're in probably a different situation, maybe you have a different class status or have different backgrounds than those home workers, I think there's a real struggle that we are in this together, because it's really a solidarity. We are a building that matters to all of us, because what you're fighting for is really at the intersection of racism, sexism, and the labor exploitation that's affecting all of us. So thank you for sharing all of the insights. And I notice Chenxi has more questions about the specific campaign, we do want to learn more about your campaign to know what we can learn from that, as many of our listeners are probably also fighting for the same struggle.
Chenxi: So can you give an overview of the history of this campaign? And what do you think are the main challenges you face during the campaign? And how did you deal with them?
Zishun: Yes. The Ain’t I a Woman campaign started when many immigrant women workers tried to organize in the garment industry, a lot of them in the 80s, or even before already, the long hours were very bad. By “long hours”, at that time, we talked about 14 hours, 12 hours, maybe 16 hours, and then multiple days. So, and then, of course, also the very low pay, and at that time, the Chinatown had a booming garment industry, but at the same time, the majority of them were sweatshops. So many women workers came together to really try to address the long hour issue, but also through that campaign, they also inspired others to come in and actually let people see that we have something in common. And also, why target Chinatown? It's obviously because they think that Chinese women are cheap and disposable, and so that they can force them to work long hours with very low pay and also a lot of the wage gaps also happen. And they inspire others, like office workers, teachers, workers of all trades come together and the broader community, to see that it is very bad that in the 20th century, 21st century, we still have sweatshop conditions. And since 9/11, the garment industry went down. Chinatown was very close to the World Trade Center, so a lot of the garment factories moved away. And the workers here changed to other industries. At that time, there were not many other options, and homecare is a big industry, so many garment workers became home attendants. But in the home care industry, actually, things are even worse, because now we have a 24-hours workday. So, many workers suffered, and we touched on that earlier. Of course, the wage gap is one big issue, because 24 hour shifts only get paid 13 hours. Every night, every day for every worker, 11 hours of pay was stolen. But more than the wage is the health, because a lot of the workers get injured, all of them get insomnia, imagine the lack of sleep. And the back pain, the hands, all deform, because they need to carry the patient who is very heavy. They need to check their bodies every two hours, because many of them are bed-bound. So, even when they come out to try to fight back, they say, actually even more money cannot buy back my health, and also my relationship with my family, because spending multiple days in the patient's home, as if you already live there, and your families estranged. So, many home attendants started coming out. In 2015 they started with one agency, the Chinese American Planning Council, and then the fight spread right to other homecare agencies, union, non union, big and small, and at the same time, also inspired many other people in other trades to also join the campaign and see that this issue does not only affect the home attendant, but the fact that it needs all our power to resist, it's really shameful for our society, and is a crime against humanity. So, every one of us has an interest in stopping it. So our campaign actually, over the years, have been growing bigger and bigger,
Kathy: As for like the current state of things. So, now, it's actually very well known that in New York City, there are thousands of immigrant women, not only Chinese, but Latina, Caribbean, and those from other Asian countries or African countries. Homecare agencies are popping up in every immigrant community to take advantage of this ability to break the law, and only pay immigrant women 13 hours for 24 hours of work so that they can make a ton of money. Homecare agencies and insurance companies are just making a ton of money off of this, while hurting workers and patients from all of our communities. And it is against the state law. But part of the racism, systemic racism, is the state government under Governor Hochul is choosing to not enforce the law when it comes to these immigrant women and their patients. So, inspired by the organizing of all these women, we have a local council member here in Chinatown named Christopher Marte, who is sponsoring a bill in the city council called the “No More 24 Act-File# Int 0175-2022,” that would mandate that 24 hour care cannot be done in 24 hour workday, 24 hour workday must end, and the care must be split into shifts of maximum 12 hours. Of course, patients need the care but it's really better, for patients too, if it's split shifts, and of course it's very necessary for workers’ health and lives. So this is a bill that we are uniting everyone behind to push and demand that the City Council Speaker put it to a vote because by not bringing this bill to a vote, she is saying that 24 hours must continue, and these insurance companies and homecare agencies should continue to kill women just to make money.
Zishun: Yeah, and the campaign also united with the patients and their family, who see also that the 24 hour is really hurting the patient. Because if the worker cannot get enough rest, how can we expect them to provide good service? And that actually puts the patients in danger, who need round the clock care. So actually, many patient families also spoke against the 24 hour, they all want to get the splitted shifts. The insurance company really wants to make a huge amount of profit. So they try to deny, deny, with all kinds of reasons, to try to maintain the 24 hour shifts. But now, the patient, workers and the whole community come together. That's why I think the campaign is so powerful: it developed from maybe just a few workers from one agency to now really an issue for the whole society.
Chenxi: Thank you very much. And thank you for sharing the whole process and the experiences about the campaign. Thinking back about the whole campaign process, what do you think is the most important lesson? Or what do you wish to share with other people who are new to organizing, especially to workers’ organizing?
Kathy: I think that actually, Zishun studied labor studies in school, and learned a lot of wrong stuff there. But I also learned, even though I was just a worker, when people think about labor organizing, or organizing in general, it will be like divided into different shops, or like different industries, or like each group of people should fight for their own specific issue. And these issues are separate. I think the most important thing is to know that these are all fake divisions, that these really are perpetuated by the system to make sure everyone is divided up and not fighting together. So for example, like I'm a tech worker, I don't think now that I need to only learn and organize in my own shop where I work. I actually feel like I'm so fortunate to have this fight, uniting across industries and across races, very importantly, to be in. And we talked a bit about super exploitation before, like how it's really racism, the origin of racism, that it'll be immigrant women of color that insurance companies and homecare agencies and the government feel like they should be exploited the most so that somebody can make money. This actually creates a lot of divisions in our society, it makes people look down on us. And it also makes other people resent us for “stealing jobs”. With many people supporting Trump now, like white people, black people, increasingly, immigrant communities are also supporting Trump, because we see that the conditions are going so bad and things are becoming so bad in the jobs. Because of these, the ruling class wants to push immigrants, the most exploitable immigrants, into those jobs. It really hurts everybody. Previously, and in upstate New York, they don't have a 24 hour work day, they have 24 hour care in eight hour shifts. A homecare worker actually has a good job. You get to take care of somebody, it's a job that people would like to do except that now because of super exploitation, the conditions are so bad that now, instead, people cannot find a job at all because that job is destroyed. We really need to unite to stop this super exploitation so that we can also stop this crisis we have of not being able to find any good work, not being able to find any work at all. In our communities when people are increasingly blaming each other for our problems, this fight really shows that we can unite against the source of our problems, who is oppressing all of us.
Zishun: Yeah, exactly. I want to also add to what you said about division. Because many people, when they joined organizing, at the beginning, inevitably, they think, oh, we are college educated, we speak English, we want to help the poor immigrant workers, who don't speak English, who don't know the law, we went to college, blah blah, blah, right? So they want to come in and do good things, which is natural, because you were taught in a college you're to be exceptional, “I’m already in a very prestigious College, now I want to give back to the community” kind of thing. But this actually fits into what the system wants, because they want to see people divided. And even those who went to college, who think that they are doing good things, actually deep down, they are probably looking down on the immigrants. They think, oh, you don't know anything. So I come in to help you, I give you power, that kind of thing. But in the end, they don't really solve the fundamental question this society puts out, which is that, they tried to say everyone is different, your interests are different, the college students’ interests are probably different from immigrant worker interests. So by thinking that, doing the organizing work actually reinforces that kind of thinking. You’re thinking you're not fighting for yourself, then basically, you're thinking, “I’m just doing a good thing, I'm sacrificing my time, my youth, my energy doing all this”. After a while, you’ll be like “what's the point? Those immigrants remain ignorant, they don't know English, they just asked me for help”. So very easily with this, you’ll burn out. And you say, oh, that's not my fight, or you’ll probably be thinking you want to advance, want to have like individual advancement, which is also what the system encourages. So, in the end, they exploit the immigrants and then climb up the ladder, becoming part of the ruling class, part of the CPC. I'm sure a lot of people who join the CPC probably initially think they are doing good things, like what I did at the beginning with the CPC, but if we don't change that, and really see what we have in common, then very easily, we're going to either burnout, or just end up exploiting the community.
Kathy: We actually really see that, the immigrant women who don't speak English and are old, they're the most oppressed by the system, the ones who are the strongest to fight back, who, after the struggles, trying to work with lawyers and stuff with the government see how bad the system is, and are willing to fight back. They're very powerful in providing leadership to the rest of society.
Zishun: Yeah, and that actually, we have a lot to learn from them, and we see this as a learning process where we learn also that it’s in our interests to fight back, so it actually ends up becoming a learning experience for many of us, instead of “sacrificing ourselves”.
Ding: Exactly. All you shared also resonate with a lot of things I'm doing here in LA. The theme of competing against each other, trying to create those divisions, those divisions that don't need to exist at all. And those like myths of meritocracy or elitism that is probably harming our Asian American community is really connected to how important it is that we're doing to, to provide to foster the solidarity and support in response to the racial discrimination to the sexist to the labor exploitation. I really love the word labor because as you said, I think whatever we're doing, doesn't matter which industry or what type of work I do, this is really just the labor that we're all hurt in some way or another, all exploited by the capitalist system. So it's really important to recognize that we are the same.
What I try to get to in the end, as the last question is I love you're connecting this mentality of “we're fighting for them, but also for ourselves, for all of us together” to the common theme we see in activist work, which is burnout and fatigue. I recognize it's important to remember the mission, remember the cause as we are fighting against our fatigue. Do you want to share one or two tips about how you take care of yourself, as we wrap up this episode, just to give our passionate activist listeners, good allies, because I know this is a very tough struggle and fight anything you're doing to do self care to combat this fatigue, because there is a lot of anger, a lot of frustration, that you're experiencing every day.
Kathy: I think, mainly two words that we have talked about a lot, learning and fighting back. Like Zishun said, if you're thinking you're gonna fight for other people, you will burn out. Because of course, we have demands on our lives in this system, we all have to make money to survive, we all have to do this and that. If we see that what we're doing and organizing is separate from that, then we would think that organizing is actually taking away from our real life. But actually, we need to make sure in our fight, that what we're learning is actually liberating ourselves, that fighting back together really does help liberate me. In the past, I have really, really struggled. I've been very stressed out ever since I was like 12 years old, trying to get perfect grades, trying to get into prestigious school, and getting a good job. So I never have to worry about this, but also feel like oh, but the world is so bad, we should try to fix it. And, like, all of those things are, where we're made to kind of like work ourselves, for the purpose of the system competing with each other. Those are the things that destroy our mental health. Because when we're exploited, it really makes us look down on ourselves. It makes us look down on other people who are exploiting our fellow workers. But when we come together, learn together and fight back. That's how we really gain our dignity, we respect ourselves, we respect each other. And that's how, what we need to not have, to really break free of all these chains. society puts on us.
Zishun: Yeah, I think the people are feeling tired because of the system or process. Not only material things, like, oh, you need to survive, earn enough money to pay your bills and all of that, but also mentally. The system encourages you to exploit each other. That's what the system is about. Right? Not only the boss, I mean, of course, he's from the ruling class, but also penetrates many workers' minds, right? So the workers, they are not immune, right? None of us are immune from this system. We are all products of it, that's how we were brought up.
(Kathy: We don't need a boss to tell us to compete with each other. Try to be smarter than everyone else. We already know how to do it. We already know how to survive in the system, but we need to learn how to actually fight, to break out.)
Otherwise, I think people, of course, feel tired. They all see things separately, and even if you're doing nothing, your mind is still contaminated by those kinds of thinking. So even not doing anything, you feel tired. Actually, organizing together for liberation energizes people. Many home attendants are in their 60s or 70s. Right, they get torture by the 24 hour workday. Now they are standing up. A lot of them are actually very active, doing flyering, organizing protests, spreading the word, all of that. We were always amazed, there's so much energy coming out, they actually did down there, they're younger than many young people. That's very inspiring to many of us, If we are able to come together, see that we have a common struggle, and see this fight also as our fight, we need to use this right, 24-hour workday, so ridiculous is how exposed how bad the system is, we take it out when also, spreading the word, all of us come together to end this, to put an end to this kind of exploitation, that way I think really can energize make us feel a lot motivated. It’s like a sharp knife penetrating the system.
Kathy: concretely what I learned is that I put forward in my job was like, for the first time after organizing here, I stood up to my boss and said, I'm not going to work overtime anymore and organize some of my coworkers for our health matters, we're not going to do it anymore. Whereas before, I would have been too afraid to do that.
Ding: Wow. I love that. That's so well said about the energizing impacts of organizing, it's not just the anger or the frustration that is driving us to do what we're fighting for. It's actually the joy, the joy of speaking up for ourselves, the joy of learning, the joy of liberating ourselves, I love that. It's another way to look at organizing. I think people when they think about organizing, or activists, they tend to think about angry faces but it's really the energy and I so agree with.
After our episode recording, Kathy shared a crucial message concerning the complicity of Councilmember Adrienne Adams in perpetuating systemic racism. Please help us raise awareness.
“This systemic racism continues in New York City because of corrupt sellout Speaker Adrienne Adams. As the first Black woman Speaker of the City Council, in the country’s most progressive city, she uses her POC face to shield insurance companies and continue violence against women of color. She refuses to bring to a vote the City bill, the No More 24 Act (Intro 175), that would end 24-hour workdays and improve care for patients. She ignores the cries of pain from home attendants. From her point of view, 24-hour workdays must continue killing women unless there is more state funding–to give to insurance companies, who are currently making big profits abusing workers and patients! By maintaining this crime against humanity, Speaker Adams is a criminal at the head of a racist system. Immigrant women of color are leading a multiracial, multigenerational movement against systemic racism. ”
Everyone should join to protest Adams’ crimes at City Hall on October 18, 12pm. Spread the word. We must not allow 24-hour workdays to exist in New York City or anywhere in the world!”