Nahar Alam, who founded the Jackson Heights-based Workers’ Awaaz to safeguard for the rights of South Asian workers, was recently honored as part of New York City Comptroller William Thompson’s 2003 South Asian Heritage celebration last week.
Thompson honored the South Asian community leaders in the Council Chamber at City Hall. Tsewang Sherpalama, former president of the United Sherpa Association, Inc., and founder of the Sherpa Education Welfare in America in Forest Hills, was also honored.
Thompson began the ceremony by paying tribute to Dr. Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-American woman in space, who died in the space shuttle Columbia tragedy.
Along with Alam and Sherpalama, Thompson also honored five other New Yorkers of South Asian heritage.
“New Yorkers with roots in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Maldives, and beyond, help make our city the greatest city on earth,” he said.
Alam formed Workers’ Awaaz—which stands for Workers’ Voice—in 1997, to focus primarily on worker exploitation. That same year, the organization won its first court case against an employer who was allegedly underpaying a South Asian worker.
The worker, who was represented by an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, sued her boss for back pay. A $20,000 settlement was reached in the case.
According to published reports, Alam herself was once a domestic worker, after she had fled to New York City from her native Bangladesh. She had reportedly fled an abusive marriage.
When she found work as a domestic worker, she reportedly was putting in 12-hour days, and making about $50 a week. When she began to speak to other South Asian workers, she found that many of them were also being grossly underpaid and denied basic privileges.
According to published reports, the injustices that she and other women in her position faced, convinced Alam to join a non-profit domestic violence prevention program for South Asian women, that she helped to expand to include working conditions.
After becoming active in this organization, Alam learned English and then formed Workers’ Awaaz. This organization became the first of its kind in the United States to organize South Asian domestic workers—it now also organizes South Asian workers from other industries.
After she had received the award at City Hall, Alam indicated that she was accepting on behalf of all of the South Asian workers.
“I am accepting this award for those who cannot be here, for those people who, just walking through the doors of City Hall, would be a dream to them,” she said.
Sherpalama, who is also a lifetime executive member of the Association of Nepalese in America, expressed gratitude for what immigrating to this country has done for his life.
“I came to the United States hoping to have a little better life,” he said. “I found freedom I could only dream. Now I know why people of all backgrounds say, ‘God Bless America.’”