The Violence of the 24-Hour Workday: Fighting Exploitation

Yves here. I can’t imagine having elder care workers assigned to 24-hour shifts. We had one aide who actually wanted 12 hour shifts, but the few that wound up having to do them for us occasionally, usually due to swapping shifts with other aides, got a 2 hour break and overtime. Even so, even the young ones were clearly dragging after only one over-long day and I’d worry about the quality of their decision-making. The fact that 24-hour shifts were the norm for an “agency” in New York City and it still hasn’t been held to account is mind-boggling. And if this is happening with legal Chinese immigrants, it’s not hard to imagine that it is taking place a-plenty with undocumented workers.

By Jihye Song. a member of Youth Against Sweatshops and the Ain’t I a Woman Campaign. Originally published at openDemocracy

On the morning of 28 April, dozens of home attendants gathered outside the New York City headquarters of their employer, the Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC), to sound the alarm. CPC is one of the largest Asian American social service non-profits in the United States. Among its many activities it runs a home attendant agency, CPCHAP, whose workers provide in-home care for elderly and disabled Medicaid recipients with severe illnesses. These carers do the difficult work of looking after elderly and disabled people in New York City’s Asian community – going to their homes to help feed and bathe them, taking them to appointments, and doing whatever else is needed so that they can live their lives in their own homes. For those who require around-the-clock care, home attendants must get up at night to turn them in bed or to assist them in using the bathroom. CPCHAP employs thousands of homecare workers, the majority of whom are older immigrant women of colour, nearly all Chinese.

In light of the recent wave of anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States, CPC had distributed hand-held alarms to parts of the Asian/Asian American community to use if they felt threatened with violence. On the morning of 28 April, however, CPC homecare workers, along with supporters from across New York City, used the alarms to draw attention to a form of violence that their bosses had been meting out for decades: the 24-hour workday.

How can CPC claim to be against anti-Asian violence, the workers demanded to know, if CPC forces them to work 24-hour shifts? If Chinese workers are abused by their Chinese bosses, how can they ever expect to be respected as human beings? As the alarms rang, the workers called for a boycott of CPC to force the non-profit to meet their demands: an immediate end to 24-hour shifts by splitting them into two 12-hour shifts worked by two different workers, payment for missing wages, and a public apology for the violence CPC had perpetrated against them. Months have passed since the start of the boycott, yet CPC still refuses to meet any of the workers’ demands.

A century after the fight for the eight-hour workday, sweatshop conditions still terrorise these working women of colour in ‘progressive’ New York City. And, as if 24-hour shifts aren’t bad enough, CPC and other employers often force workers to take several shifts in a row, making it impossible for them to return to their own homes for days at a time. Requiring unpaid hours is also a rampant business practice in this sector, as employers like CPC often subtract three hours for meal breaks and eight hours for sleep despite requiring employees to be continually present and available. The result is that attendants are paid the equivalent of 13 hours for a 24-shift. The reality of working with people who need round-the-clock care is that they do in fact need round-the-clock care, and homecare workers often have to work through their designated “sleep hours.” Despite court rulings that mandate workers be paid for the full 24-hours if they are unable to take adequate breaks, CPC has not paid a cent.

It’s Not Just About Money, It’s About Violence

While the workers do want to be paid retrospectively for all their unpaid work, and for all the hours they currently work, they are frustrated by those who try to reduce their fight to simply a matter of money. The CPC workers’ demands do not stop at fighting for fair wages – 24 hours of wages for 24 hours of work. They want an end to the 24-hour workday because they see it as a form of violence.

Years of 24-hour workdays have caused terrible physical damage to workers’ bodies. Working 24-hours shifts for CPC has made one worker, Rui Ling Wang, “anxious, nervous, [and] sleep-deprived”. Burdened with “high blood pressure and stomach disease”, Wang publicly shared that she “too [has] become a patient.” Another worker, Xiao Huan Yu, suffers from bent fingers, permanently damaged from years of looking after patients.

The homecare workers furthermore insist that the violence is more than just physical. The 24-hour workday destroys mental health, marriages, and a worker’s social-self. With little time to rest between shifts, workers must always struggle to make time for loved ones, hobbies, and organising (though this hasn’t stopped them from fighting.) Their lives become totally consumed by work.

Lai Yee Chan, a CPC homecare worker and a leader in the fight against the 24-hour work day, has often said, “when you get shot in the street, the pain is instant and you die quickly. The 24-hour workday is slow torture and imprisonment, where you suffer continuously every day. It’s worse than getting shot and, if I have to choose, I would rather choose the former.”

These sweatshop conditions of homecare workers are the result of racist superexploitation. It is no coincidence that in New York State, it is only in New York City – where homecare workers are nearly all immigrant women of colour – that 24-hour shifts are the norm. Outside the city, where homecare workers are more likely to be US born and white, 12-hour or 8-hour shifts are far more common. CPC, however, is able to use the precarity and marginalisation of their workforce to reduce costs. It takes advantage of the fact that for their workers, mostly Chinese-speaking and older women, homecare work is one of the few jobs they can get. It gets the outcome it wants by offering them the choice between 24-hour shifts and too few hours to live on (or no job at all).

The existence of the 24-hour-working immigrant underclass drags down the conditions of workers of all races, genders, and class positions from all different industries, subjecting all to the violence of long hours. From Amazon warehouse workers and medical residents to adjunct professors and tech workers, many working people today are unable to realise their right to refuse long hours, not even 24 hours. Many such workers have joined with homecare workers, inspired by their fight to regain their time, their lives, and their futures.

The fight to end 24-hour workdays is the fight to end racism. As homecare workers have insisted, there will be no end to anti-Asian violence as long as we allow everyday racist violence against workers of colour. Being forced to work 24 hours must be understood as violence. The way to end this violence is not through alarms or empty commitments against anti-Asian hate, but through ending the disgusting conditions of superexploitation that are present in New York City and elsewhere around the world.

No more 24!

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  1. Cocomaan

    Am I reading here that most of the clients of CPC workers are also Asian? I assume they are higher net worth individuals keeping this underclass going.

    This is unacceptable but labor rights aren’t really the purview of either political party these days. It will get worse before it gets better, is my guess.

  2. Spacecadet

    Revealing how the subsidized efforts of tax exempt entities engage the mission, on paper of course, and yet materially continue exploitative tactics. The stage of development we have arrived at will be marked by the increasing amount and staggering nature of paradoxes confronting the day to day. Perhaps change will be primed to reception then.
    I agree, building labor power up is not on the minds of the elite; in fact, just the opposite is taking place. But, people are resilient. The PMC’s ground is shaking, it would seem, and the delusion will fade for those affected by it. Social movements will gain traction, the only question is a matter of when and at what cost.

    1. roxan

      This happens with nurses, too. Many institutions have 12 hr shifts, and then they routinely compel staying for the second 12 hrs, by simply not scheduling replacement staff. No overtime paid, claiming RNs are ‘management’. Also, lots of stolen time. One place declared we worked too much overtime–have to clock out on time. So, everyone clocked out and worked extra 2-3 hours for free. One especially vindictive place demanded we clock in and out for the 1/2 hour lunch we never had time to actually use–but assigned using a time clock on the far side of a sprawling complex, so your ‘lunch’ was mostly used up journeying to the clock.

  3. Alice X

    I helped care for my father in the last seven years of his life. With MS for ten years before, but then with a stroke he became severely disabled. With my mother who was petite (I was nearly the same frame as my dad) at their home we managed. As a musician a full work week was generally less than thirty hours, so with aids when I was away, we continued his care at home. However the last eight months or so when I had torn something in my hip and could no longer lift him, we took him to the ER. He had stage four decubitus ulcers, which were not apparent to us lay people. In the hospital for six weeks, then to a medicare approved nursing home. Then several repeat cycles until finally for the last six weeks they sent him home, as he had contracted MRSA and they essentially gave up on him. By that point my mother was in a wheelchair and needed help herself. I then cared for him (and her) 24/7 waking every two hours to turn him in his bed. I couldn’t work and went broke as I never took anything from them. Those last six weeks were ruinous to me. If I ever recovered, it took months.

  4. Carly

    Another reason why immigrants are the key to union busting and lowered standards of living for American workers.

    People voted for candidates who favor mass immigration, so they shouldn’t be dismayed at its effects.

  5. Alex Cox

    It isn’t only health care workers who are subjected to this abuse. IATSE – the Hollywood craft union which represents camera people, art department, wardrobe and other ‘below the line’ talent – is threatening a strike on account of massively long work days without overtime. The cause is apparently the contracts made with internet series producers, who are able to ignore the rules which apply to feature film and TV production.

    Not that this is new. Rutger Hauer, in his autobiography, wrote about working a 24 hour day on the concluding scenes of BladeRunner. The studio was apparently afraid of an actors’ strike – even though, since the film was already in production, it probably would not have been affected. Having spent 24 hours leaping from skyscraper to skyscraper on a sound stage, Hauer was told by the director that the cast and crew were to work another 24 hours straight.

    Hauer refused, and went back to his hotel, despite threats that he would “never work in Hollywood again.” He returned to the set after getting a night’s sleep, and improvised his “tears in rain” speech – the best part of the movie.

    The actors’ strike didn’t take place, but it looks like Hauer was indeed blacklisted by the studios for a couple of decades – working in independent US and European movies – before returning to the studio realm.

    1. Roger Blakely

      You know that things are tough for the middle class when lawyers think that the grass is greener in Hollywood and Hollywood workers think that the grass is greener in law offices.

  6. thoughtfulperson

    I read a while back about 9 9 6 (9am to 9pm, 6 days a week, a 72hr work week), apparently a common work week in China. This makes China look pretty good.

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