The Role of Chinatown Bus Lines and Employment Agencies for New Immigrants

January 7, 2015

This feature is part of an ongoing RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the ongoing research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

As an affordable mode of transportation up and down the East Coast, the Chinatown bus lines operating out of New York City have become an increasingly popular service even for those outside of the Chinese immigrant community. Yet, a series of high-profile traffic accidents involving these buses over the last few years have raised concerns about their safety, and in 2012, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration began a crackdown on many of the Chinatown buses.

While the closure of such bus lines may present an inconvenience for those looking for cheap vacation transportation, these shutdowns, if continued, could have a far more serious impact on newly arrived Chinese immigrants. Zai Liang (SUNY Albany), who is currently writing a book on the patterns of employment and settlement among recent low-skilled Chinese immigrants, identifies the Chinatown bus lines as a vital component of the job networks for new immigrants. His current research examines the role of both these bus lines and Chinatown’s employment agencies in facilitating immigrant settlement in destinations outside of New York City.

In a new interview with the Foundation, Liang explained how the bus lines and employment agencies help new immigrants find jobs, support their families, and even begin their own businesses outside of New York.

Q. Your current research examines the settlement patterns of recent Chinese immigrants in the US, focusing in particular on the role of New York City Chinatown employment agencies and the Chinatown bus lines. How do these two institutions work together to influence or accommodate the movements of Chinese immigrants?

Probably the most important institutions in New York’s Chinatown over the last two decades have been the employment agencies and Chinatown bus companies, which were both created in order to serve the employment needs of low-skilled Chinese immigrants. Traditionally, Chinese immigrants have depended on immigrant networks (relatives, friends, and people who came from same villages) to find employment upon arriving in the United States. With the expansion of the Chinese restaurant industry into destinations outside of New York, the demand for low-skilled immigrant workers has risen significantly. The employment agencies in Chinatown were created to meet this labor demand, and represent a major shift in employment patterns—that is, from migration network-based job searches to market-based job searches. I argue that employment agencies not only help new immigrants get jobs, but also facilitate job transitions that ultimately lead to job mobility for low-skilled immigrants.

Equally important has been the creation of the Chinatown bus lines. Working in tandem with employment agencies in Chinatown, the Chinatown buses provide a convenient and affordable way to transport immigrants to a wide range of places in the U.S. (This is especially important for newly arrived immigrants, whose English proficiency is likely to be poor.) The Chinatown bus lines also have a special significance for sociology: Historically, many minority group members in the U.S. have suffered spatial mismatch between their jobs and their residence locations. But in Chinatown, immigrant entrepreneurs are creating their transportation infrastructure to accommodate the movements of these low-skilled workers.

Q. Many recent immigrants to the U.S. are low-income, with limited English skills. Do these employment agencies serve as a kind of safety net? Do immigrants return to them repeatedly to find job opportunities?

That’s right. From my fieldwork studying these employment agencies, I noticed that many of their staff members were middle-aged immigrant women, some of whom used to be restaurant workers themselves. These staffers tend to be very helpful and friendly in providing job information. Once an immigrant decides to take a job advertised by the employment agency, staff members will explain the location of the job and which Chinatown bus to take. Today, the majority of low-skilled immigrant workers who arrive in New York find jobs through employment agencies in Chinatown, and many of them use the same agency again and again. Because workers know that they can always find a new job through these employment agencies, they are easily able to quit jobs where the work conditions are bad (for example, if they face an abusive boss.)

Q. You’ve noted that job seekers will often travel to other states for work, while their families remain in New York. Is the ultimate goal of these workers to one day find employment in New York, near their families, or do their families tend to eventually relocate with them?

In general, low-skilled Chinese immigrants would prefer to work in New York. However, the reality is that most of these jobs are not located in New York. One path that many immigrants follow is to work in other states for a few years, save some money, and then start their own businesses, and get married and settle. For many of the immigrants that I’ve studied, owning a small restaurant is their version of the American dream and sometimes is a prerequisite for marriage—though, of course, not everyone can make this happen. There are also many immigrants who move from job to job in different states and never quite get settled in one location. This even happens to immigrants with spouses and small children. We find large numbers of these households in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. In some cases children are left with other relatives while their parents working outside of New York, which is a major concern for the well-being of these immigrant children.

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