Ligia Guallpa is Executive Director of Worker’s Justice Project in New York City.
Errol Schweizer: What is Worker’s Justice Project and Los Deliveristas Unidos?
Ligia Guallpa: Worker’s Justice Project was started in 2010 by a group of jornaleras, or women day laborers, and construction workers in Williamsburg, with the dream to have a better life, to earn better wages and have more dignified and safer working conditions. We are a worker led organization that is comprised of committees that are organizing in different industries like domestic workers, who are trying to raise standards in the house cleaning industry. We have construction workers who want to set standards and create more representation in one of the deadliest industries in the country. And there is a health and safety committee that is trying to build the culture of safety across industries. And then recently, there is Los Deliveristas Unidos, who organized the first app-based food delivery march, realizing that they also need to be able to organize against the greed and the power of large corporations and tech companies. And that’s what WJP is about. It’s about building a space where workers are not only making decisions about what campaigns they’re leading, but a safe space where workers are coming together to confront the injustices they’re facing in their workplace, in the industry, in their own communities.
Errol: What has it been like to be an essential worker during COVID-19?
Ligia: For most workers, it’s been a year of survival, a year of resistance, a year of suffering, a year of pain. And many have gone through all these experiences, alone, without being recognized, without a support system. They were struggling with COVID, were struggling to pay their rent. For many of our members, their only safety net was Worker’s Justice Project. And when we say “the organization”, it was really each other. Because what the organization is about is a group of people who said, we have no other choice and we have no one else but each other to survive one of the worst crises of our time. And what we saw during COVID was that workers more than ever realized that organizing was the only alternative and the only safety net that they had for survival. Workers were forced to work, deliver food and clean homes sick, because there was no other way to have housing and have food to feed their families. Workers are realizing that organizing is the only thing that has kept them alive.
And recently we have embarked on trying to change and transform the food delivery industry, which is one of the industries that has been booming during the pandemic, while denying essential rights to food delivery workers, such as minimum wage, workers compensation, access to a restroom, access to health and safety equipment and other essential rights that worker centers and the labor movement have been fighting for for decades. And, in New York City, we’re facing a real threat of big tech companies attempting to rewrite our labor law protections for all workers that are at risk of being redefined as independent contractors.
Errol: Tell us a bit more about Los Deliveristas Unidos.
Ligia: What food delivery workers have been realizing for the past year, is that they have been serving an irreplaceable role in the city’s recovery without any protections and most workers are completely tired of being treated as less than human beings. Workers are making a strong statement that enough is enough, that they’re not only essential to the city’s recovery, but that they deserve to be treated as human beings. Workers have come together to demand essential rights, such as access to bathrooms, personal protective equipment, the right to refuse unsafe work and receive paid sick time and hazard pay. And they’re doing it in one of the most powerful ways by lifting up their voices, building solidarity. Worker’s Justice Project is deeply rooted in the value of solidarity. Collective empowerment, mutual support and building a community where together we can win, by investing in the leadership of members who want to lead and organize, but also by making sure we’re able to respond to the immediate needs of our communities.
Errol: How does US immigration policy affect essential workers in your communities and what needs to be done to repair US immigration law and foreign policy?
Ligia: We believe now more than ever, immigrant and essential workers deserve a dignified pathway for citizenship, especially for more than 11 million immigrant undocumented workers who have put their own lives on the line for this nation. Most of our communities, our families, our members have been experiencing fear and trauma by being terrorized and dehumanized by an administration that had been implementing policies that separated families and terrified our communities. Citizenship for all workers, and also taking full ownership of that, as a nation, this country is also responsible for why many of us are here, including me, my dad, my family. We migrated, not as a choice, but as a way of survival. Many of our members have been fleeing violence and wars that were created by this country. This nation has the responsibility to protect the people who were forced to leave.
Errol: What changes do we need to see in the food system to make things better for essential workers?
Ligia: Food is the core of everything. Food is what keep us alive. Food is the reason why migrant workers migrated to this nation for the first place. Food has become a way of survival for immigrant workers. So there’s many ways of making sure that workers who are in the frontlines can have access to basic essential rights and protections in industries such as the restaurant industry, the farm work industry. By making sure that those workers who are delivering, harvesting your food are not only able to have protections but a dignified wage so they can actually be able to afford to feed their own families. And then the second thing is that most workers who live in our neighborhoods don’t have access to healthy foods. Many of our neighbors, members, even our own families couldn’t access fresh vegetables, couldn’t access healthy foods. And what this city needs to do is making sure that there are healthy foods accessible in all neighborhoods. That is so essential for the survival of migrant New Yorkers who are keeping our city running.
Errol: So what is the future for Worker’s Justice Project?
Ligia: So some of the things that we see include building strong organizing campaigns where workers can win essential rights in their own industries, but also play an important role that will define the future of the labor movement. We want representation, we want to strengthen the labor movement to make sure that we have a voice in the workplace, to make sure that we’re able to live in our own cities with dignity and respect.