A new generation of South Asian teenagers is working long hours to help support their families.
When the last bell rings at Berkeley High School, Chetna Sharma races to catch the #51 bus on Shattuck Avenue to get home in time to change from her school clothes into a purple polo-shirt and black slacks. If she has time, she grabs a late lunch from leftovers in the fridge before tucking her hair into a black baseball hat, with “Subway” emblazoned across the band, and catches another bus from her Piedmont home to her job at a fast food restaurant in Alameda. “I make turkey, beef, cheese, bologna, all the American sandwiches,” said 15-year-old Sharma. “I get home by 11 p.m. and then do my homework.”
Immigrant teenagers like Sharma, whose family came from Delhi last year, aren’t working after school just for the extra pocket money. School officials say that many teens like Sharma must work after-school jobs to supplement the family income, save for college, or support the family.
“I think my education is more important than money,” said Sharma, whose father works as a security guard and whose mother works as cashier at Rite Aid Pharmacy, “but I need money for my education. It doesn’t make sense.” Sharma’s goal is to attend the University of California, Berkeley, and become a computer engineer.
Nationwide, more than 50% of teenagers hold down jobs, estimates Diane Bush, a community educator wit the Labor Occupational Health Program based at the University of California, Berkeley. The program educates school officials and students about teenagers’ workplace rights.
Increasingly, the children of the less affluent second and third wave of immigrants from South Asia are working long hours in violation of the child labor laws designed to protect their rights. They work in family-owned gas stations, motels and Indian fabric shops- as well as taking jobs in other businesses to contribute to the family’s income.
Supporting the family business
Sixteen year-old Seema Patel has worked in her mother’s motel for as long as she can remember. Her father passed away when she was three and her mother relies on Seema and her 18-year old sister, Sarika, to help her run the business.
“I work as a desk clerk, answer phones, do the shopping, whatever my mom wants me to do,” said Seema, twirling her long, brown ponytail as she and her friend Aysha Ashgar, took a break from their video arts class at Berkeley High School to talk with a reporter.
When she turned 16, Seema’s mother, Supha asked her to get an outside job. Now, in addition to her work at the motel, Seema works in the kitchen at an Emeryville nightclub three nights a week until 11 p.m. On weekends, after she does the morning work at the Berkeley Motel- cleaning, shopping, taking her turn behind the check-in desk- she heads back to the nightclub where she works until midnight.
Seema’s goal is to become an accountant. She gives all the money she earns to her mother, who saves some of it for Seema’s future. “The money will be useful to her when she needs it,” said Supha.
As a single mother, Supha Patel struggles alone to raise her children and maintain the business she and her late husband started nearly twenty hears ago. “I try tmy best to teach our culture and to blend with people of different castes and races over here. I feel like they need to learn their responsibilities, too. Life is hard over here.”
“It’s difficult sometimes, I get pretty tired, and I don’t get to hang out with friends as much as I’d like to,” said Seema. “But my dad passed away when I was three, and our family is mostly in India. My mom is a single mom and she needs our help.”
Sitting next to her, Seema’s friend 16-year-old sophomore Aysha Ashgar, nodded in understanding. “My dad’s a single parent too,” said Aysha. “You have to help fill in for the parent who’s gone.
Aysha’s father is a widower who spends long hours driving a taxi in Berkeley. Now that Aysha’s two older brothers have left home, Aysha’s seven and eight year old sisters are her responsibility. She gets them dressed, makes them breakfast and drops them off at school every morning before she leaves herself. She is often late to school, or miser her first class altogether.
Last summer Aysha worked 30 hours a week at the University Art Museum in Berkeley through a city program called Youth Works, which finds and places low-income teenagers in jobs. All of Aysha’s minimum wage earnings over the summer were needed for the family. “When my brothers moved out, not that much money was coming in anymore. I didn’t et to see any of the money I made; it went to pay the bills.”
Aysha’s father recently remarried a woman from his native Pakistan. “Lately, it’s been getting hectic financially. Now I’m looking for a job to contribute to the family as soon as my stepmother can come and take care of my sisters. We’ll really need the money with the extra person.”
Aysha says that when she graduates from high school her father’s family will band together to pool their income in an effort to send her to college. She wants to become a midwife. “They want to make sure I get a good education and that I don’t go to my Black side,” said Aysha, whose mother was African-American.
Seema’s video arts teacher, Darhini Rasiah, an immigrant from Sri Lanka, is concerned about students like Seema and Aysha. She hopes that she can serve as a role model to south Asian teens struggling to carve out a future for themselves. “I feel like an older sister to them. I have a lot of concern fro what they will do in their lives,” said Rasiah. “People don’t’ realize how much pressure some of these teenagers have in their lives.”
But students like Aysha and Seema often keep their pressures under wraps. “I had no idea they worked so much,” said Rasiah.
Pavita Kaur also works to help sustain her family’s business. her father sent her to live with her aunts in Berkeley seven months ago to get a good education. The high school senior tries to study English between customers behind the counter of her aunt’s fabric store, Ali Shar, in Berkeley everyday after school from 3:30 pm to 7:00 pm and on weekdays.
“My whole family is over there (India),” she said in slow English while waiting with a friend for the bus that takes her from school to work. “Life is difficult over here and I miss them.”
Immigrant teens work more than U.S.-born teens
At Berkeley High School, more than one-third of its nearly 3,000 students work, according to Louis Thomas, director of Project Workability, which issues work permits to high school students. Many working students are immigrants, said Isabelle Para, secretary in the school’s English as a Second Language Department. Para estimates that 70% of Berkeley High’s 297 Limited English Proficiency students work.
“They definitely work more than kids who are born here,” said Para. “That’s the goal of the countries they are coming from- that they money geos to the family. Bu they can’t do their homework at night because they are working.”
Educators worry that students working long hours are missing out on their education. “More and more of my students are working six, seven, even eight hours a day in addition to school,” said Myron Berkman, an English as a Second Language teacher at Berkeley High School. “They fall asleep in class, show up late, and don’t do their homework. It affects their performance.”
Not only do the long hours that teenagers work impact their grades and learning, they may be in violation of the law. Federal and state laws prohibit 14 and 15 year-old teens from working more than three hours or past 7 p.m. on school days. 16 and 17-year-olds can’t work more than four hours on school days or later than 10 p.m.
School districts try to keep track of their working students and monitor their school performance. California state law requires that schools issue work permits to students with their parents’ permission.
Many schools also perform random grade and attendance checks of students who have work permits. Students whose grades are slipping or who are missing too much school are given counseling, according to Louis Thomas, director of the work permit office at Berkeley High School. But in schools as large as Berkeley High, Thomas admits many students fall through the cracks.
And the law doesn’t require students like Seema, who work in a family business, to get a work permit, or if they work informally as babysitters, mowing lawns or cleaning houses. These students’ performances aren’t monitored by schools.
Even teens with school-issued work may not be protected from hour violations of the law. “Once they’re working, it’s hard to keep track,” said Louis Thomas. “We issue 1,000 permits through this office and our job is to monitor the school performance of kids who are working. It’s up to federal and state authorities to enforce child labor laws.”
Unfortunately, that enforcement lags. While the department of Labor works closely with schools to ensure that teens are educated about their rights, they don’t’ have the resources to enforce those rights. The San Francisco Wage and Hours office has 22 investigators for all of Northern California who must focus on a wide range of labor issues. Nationally, the Wage and Hours division spends only 6 percent of its investigative time in child labor cases.
Employers hiring minors are required by state law to review these permits before hiring students. Industries like the fast food chain McDonald’s, which relies on teens to fill 50% of their jobs, routinely checks teens’ working permits, according to Jenny Tram, the Human Resources Regional Coordinators of McDonald’s.
Teens in the service sector
Ranvir Singh is one of those students who works for McDonald’s and has a work permit from his high school. He arrived, along with his twin brother, Satvar, fron Punjab to join their father, who has been driving taxis in Berkeley for six years. For Ranvir, 17, who works from 4-10 p.m. everyday and on weekends, the long hours-still in compliance with labor laws- are a way of leaning English and American ways.
“When I first came to the U.S., it was really hard the fist couple of months,” asid Ranvir, interrupting his conversation of give high –fives to students passing by in the high school hallway. “I didn’t speak English, and on my first day at school I wore Indian baggy pants and the black kids at the school made fun of me.”
When Ranvir took a job at McDonald’s, thought the long hours kept him from his studies, they also provided him with extra spending money to trade the baggy Indian clothes for baggy American jeans, and the soccer shoes fro his passion, playing on Berkeley High’s Hornets team. “My dad couldn’t’ afford to buy me all the things I need,” sai dRanvir. “I know how to take care of myself now.”
No federal or state agency keeps tabs on how many teens really work, legally or illegally. A recent study by Rutgers University economist Douglas Kruse and Douglas Mahoney estimates that 150,000 minors work illegally in any given week in the United States, and that about 300,000 do so at some point during hteyear. Only a fraction of these violations are ever caught. And when parents rely on their children’s income to support the family, and their children’s future, teenagers are unwilling to call attention to the long hours that they work. They accept them.
“Kids are not interested in reporting employers who ask them to work long hours, and if their employers are family members, then nothing illegal is going on anyway,” said Diane Bush. “Usually, they don’t know their rights and are easy to exploit.”
They also are acutely aware of their responsibilities towards family, and do not see themselves as being exploited at all, rather as pitching in.
As for Sharma, who works long past the 7 p.m. school night limit proscribed by the laws for 15-year-olds, concern fro the future keeps her working. “I have negative thoughts sometimes because I don’t’ think we will have enough money. The people who come here new have to work so hard.”