5 Lessons From This Uplifting Doc on Undocumented Workers Fighting For Their Rights

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Now in its fourth season, America ReFramed continues to shine a light on a range of voices and viewpoints relating to the nation’s pressing social issues. Comprised of weekly 60- to 90-minute independent films, this joint venture between World Channel and American Documentary, Inc. has featured documentaries on undocumented immigrants, sexual abuse, and the struggles of first-generation US Latinos.

This week the focus turned to the plight of low-wage workers in New York City in the aptly titled doc The Hand That Feeds. The 2014 documentary tells the story of how a group of mostly undocumented immigrant workers at a New York City sandwich shop (a Hot & Crusty on the Upper East Side) organized themselves to fight the abusive conditions under which they were working.

It’s an inspirational story that champions the courage of these workers who fought together for fair working conditions. But it also helpfully contextualizes these issues within larger problems around immigration and labor unions that are sure to be at the center of 2016 politics as we inch closer to the election.

In the run up to The Hand that Feeds‘ upcoming premiere on America ReFramed, here are five things we learned from Robin Blotnick and Rachel Lears’ still timely and informative film.

‘The Hand that Feeds’ premieres June 21 at 8 p.m. as part of ‘America ReFramed’ on World Channel.


“Los inmigrantes son los que mueven la ciudad”

While it might seem like a platitude to some, the film’s undeniable premise is that immigrants are at the heart of New York City, and making sure they are primed to succeed with living wages shouldn’t be as novel or as radical as we’re sometimes lead to believe. And that’s precisely what was at stake at the 63rd street Hot & Crusty, where many Latin American immigrants were working for unspeakably low wages and being treated quite poorly by the management and owners (who refused to be interviewed for the film).


Undocumented Immigrants Are Less Likely To Speak About Poor Labor Conditions

No surprise there, but that also means that business owners are more likely to exploit these situations to mistreat their employees. At the start of The Hand that Feeds we see that a Hot & Crusty employee was paid a mere $290 after working over 60 hours (which barely adds up to $5/hour). In fear of retaliation, many workers keep their heads down and live with barely enough money to survive, let alone send back to their families abroad. But if there’s one thing the story of Hot & Crusty can teach audiences it’s that, in the words of one worker, “You cannot be afraid to raise your voice.”


Laundry Workers Center Is Here To Help

Enter: Laundry Workers Center. As shown in the doc, this grassroots organization is intent on empowering workers in the laundry and food service industries. Rather than merely going in and helping workers in need, LWC believes in building a leadership network across these industries. That’s precisely what we see happen as they coach Mahoma López from Hot & Crusty, transforming him from a shy sandwich worker into a union leader in his own right. By the end of the film, after protests and letters, meetings and vote counts, we watch Mahoma become an advocate for his fellow workers, in spite of his undocumented status (and, as it turns out, his wife’s concerns).


New York State Labor Laws Cover Undocumented Workers

As LWC volunteers remind the 63rd St Hot & Crusty employees, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights of New York State protects workers even if they are undocumented. That means that things like minimum wage and overtime pay are guaranteed to you regardless of your immigration status. The problem, as The Hand that Feeds perfectly illustrates, is in motivating workers who are often victims of exploitation and coercion to organize, especially when the risk seems so much higher.


“New York is a union town”

The workers at Hot & Crusty were surprisingly successful at unionizing, and when the owner eventually decided he’d close the shop altogether, they mobilized the neighborhood and convinced a new investor to save both the shop and their jobs. Throughout the many demonstrations presented in the film — which was shot shortly after Occupy Wall St. and in the midst of the continued push for minimum wage in New York’s fast food industries — we see that there is definitely strength in numbers. And while there were a handful of white men who tried to lecture Mahoma and his co-workers on their union fight, there were many more bystanders who rallied around their cause and understood that unions make the city and its businesses stronger.