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Many Immigrants’ Job Search Starts in Chinatown

A century ago, a glance at Ellis Island’s handwritten ledgers would have offered a sense of the diverse crowds pouring into New York.

Wendy Wong owns Sincere Employment Agency. She keeps a notebook with contacts for Latinos under the heading “Amigos.”

To find a modern version of that, look to the back wall of a windowless room in a Chinatown employment agency.

There, a collage of currency from every corner of the globe — Eritrea, Iran, Mexico — showcases the origins of those who come to this tiny office on Doyers Street looking for work.

Their options are listed on a cluttered dry-erase board: A liquor store helper in Maryland. A cashier in Westchester County. A fast-food cook in Connecticut. The only details are an area code, a monthly salary and the work shift.

The office, Tina Employment Agency, is one of two dozen bare-bones job bureaus clustered around the Manhattan Bridge that charge $30 to $80 for a perch on the economy’s bottom rung.

Many of the clients are new immigrants. Their homelands span the globe, reflecting the diversity of New York’s immigrant ranks and Chinatown’s emergence as a launching pad for them all, not just the Chinese.

On recent afternoons, the line of nervous applicants waiting to talk to Tina Chan, the agency’s gruff manager, included Tibetans, Nepalis, Indonesians and Salvadorans. Communication can be a challenge.

“I speak a little Chinese, she speaks a little English,” Armando Torres, a Mexican cook, said in Spanish. “Mexicans, Guatemalans, everyone comes here.”

Lately, business has not been good for Ms. Chan, or the job-seekers. Employers are offering little work, leaving potential clients to bide their time in the cramped office while the staff members sit at desks, waiting for businesses to call.
“There used to be four phones ringing all the time,” Ms. Chan said.

Chinatown has long had a dense infrastructure to help new immigrants find their footing. Without leaving East Broadway, a fisherman fresh from a Chinese village could get a job washing dishes in Arlington, Va.; Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; or Flushing, Queens. He could also find a bus to take him there, and an apartment to share with six other men from his hometown. And while waiting for all that to be arranged, he could visit a doctor, consult a lawyer, take in a bootleg movie and slurp a lunch of noodle soup.

The Chinatown buses are the most visible link in the network. They originally ferried workers to menial jobs up and down the East Coast, but were discovered in recent years by non-Chinese customers, who adopted them as cheap alternatives to Greyhound.

The employment agencies may be undergoing a similar shift.

“The Chinatown infrastructure, which has been set up to be part of a whole migration industry for Chinese coming into the country, has begun to be accessed by other immigrant groups looking for a way into the low-wage labor market,” said Kenneth J. Guest, an anthropologist at Baruch College who has studied Chinatown. “It’s an entry point.”

Many of the agencies cater mainly to recent immigrants from the Fuzhou region of southeastern China. But the Tina agency is one of a handful that has begun to attract more people from other nations who are in a hurry to find low-skilled work. “It’s not enough to pay the rent if it’s only Chinese,” Ms. Chan said. “The doors are open.” She forms relationships with some of her clients, many of whom are repeat customers. If they travel back home or abroad, some bring her currency to add to her wall.

At the Sincere Employment Agency a few blocks away, Wendy Wong, the owner, keeps contacts for Latino job-hunters in a special section of a college-ruled notebook, under the heading “Amigos.”

The Tina agency charges workers $40 for a job placement, a lower-end price in Chinatown but roughly a third of what Latino agencies on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens charge. Employment agencies are not responsible for verifying the working papers or legal status of their clients, according to the State Department of Labor.


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