FOREST HILLS — Nelson Hernandez said his eyes burn for hours after he leaves his job at a Queens car wash. Raul Perez claimed the soap used to scrub down the cars at one location once burned the hair off his legs. Carlos Garcia, another local car wash employee, said he was ignored when he asked for gloves or a mask to protect his body from hours of chemical exposure.
All three immigrant workers were initially afraid to speak out against their bosses for fear of losing the little pay their jobs afforded, they said. But they nonetheless joined a protest on Tuesday with other former and current car wash employees, claiming they had suffered enough abuse and wanted to unionize.
"If we are united in this struggle, I know we can win justice for car wash workers all over New York City," said Heriberto Hernandez, who had worked until recently at Metro Car Wash on Metropolitan Avenue, the site of the protest.
An employee at that car wash, as well as other employees at the location, declined to comment on the charges Tuesday.
Banging drums and hoisting signs, the workers — citing a new study alleging car wash employees often work long hours for low pay and no benefits — said lax enforcement of labor laws puts them in harm's way at their jobs.
The unscientific study, funded by two immigrant advocacy groups and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, found that more than 71 percent of car wash workers were on the job for at least 60 hours a week, with some working as many as 105 hours.
Ana Maria Archila, executive director of Make the Road New York, one of the study's sponsors, thanked workers at the rally who "so courageously are coming forward to end a kind of slavery that we have in this city."
"It's a slavery of people who wash our cars and make them look pretty while their hands are destroyed, while their lives are destroyed, because of burns, because of exploitation," she said.
"We're here to shine the light on an industry that is profiting on the backs of workers who are not getting paid."
Several Spanish-speaking car wash workers spoke at the rally through interpreters, describing what they called abuse by managers.
Guatemalan immigrant David de la Cruz Perez, 41, said he worked for five years at the Sutphin Boulevard Car Wash, but claimed the owner refused to give him sick pay when he broke his hand on the job and missed six months of work.
A man answering the phone at the car wash Tuesday declined comment on the worker's allegations.
Workers also criticized several other car washes, including LMC Astoria, LMC East Harlem and Smart Car Wash on Crocheron Avenue in Flushing. Employees answering the phones at those car washes either declined to comment or referred questions to managers who weren't immediately available.
Queens Councilman James Sanders, chairman of the Council's civil service and labor committee, said that he would push for a hearing exploring the mistreatment of car wash employees.
"We can have shiny cars and justice," he said.
The study's authors based their findings on interviews with 89 workers over several months at 29 car washes in New York City. About 66 percent of workers claimed they were paid less than the $7.25 minimum wage at times, according to the study.
Only one of the 89 employees interviewed was offered a health care plan, and none received paid sick days, the report stated. The study also criticized the employees' unpredictable schedules and sometimes dangerous working conditions.
The protesters chanted "Si Se Puede" — Spanish for "Yes We Can" — while braving cold temperatures as customers drove into the car wash behind them.
"It is a chilly day," added Manhattan Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents East Harlem and sits on the civil service and labor committee, "but the rays of justice are shining on us."