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Chinatown workers organize en masse for better conditions

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During the three years he worked at Z&Y restaurant, a mainstay of San Francisco’s Chinatown, John Wang said he never received any overtime or meal breaks imposed by the State, despite working 11-hour shifts, six days a week.

One of the few waiters who spoke English fluently, Wang finally learned his rights in the workplace and decided to fight for them. In 2018, he rallied a dozen colleagues, all immigrants from China and Taiwan, and filed a claim with the state for lost wages, non-payment of minimum wage and sick leave.

“I wanted to make sure everyone sticks together and knows what’s going on,” Wang, 56, told NBC Asian America. “In addition to the money, we send the message to other immigrant workers that you can stand up for yourself.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Chinatowns in particular have become a hotbed of union protests and legal challenges, many of which are concentrated in the hard-hit hospitality sector. Nationally, 90% of Asian small businesses lost revenue last year, a higher rate than other racial groups, according to a March study by the New York Federal Reserve. (Besides Chinese workers, Chinese restaurateurs in Chinatown also hire many Latino and Southeast Asian immigrants.)

Last month, the owners of the Szechuan restaurant agreed to pay 22 employees $ 1.61 million in a hefty wage theft settlement, including nearly $ 600,000 in tips that the workers say they have paid. were refused. Five labor leaders, including Wang, reached a second settlement of $ 70,000 for alleged retaliation for speaking out. Wang, who fell ill during the organization, said his bosses refused to rehire him after he recovered a few weeks later, putting him and his wife under severe emotional and financial stress.

In addition to the settlement money, the owners also agreed to implement new policies, such as training on paid worker rights, fair scheduling practices, transparent tip distribution, and employee manuals. bilingual employees.

“We are at a particular time at this time when the pandemic and anti-Asian racism have further exposed long-standing problems in the restaurant industry and the low-wage labor industry,” Shaw San Liu said. , executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, a grassroots organization that worked closely with workers at Z & Y restaurant.

Seth Weisburst, an attorney for the owners of Z&Y restaurant, said his customers “vigorously deny any illegal behavior.” They made the “difficult decision” to settle, he said, because they did not want to spend “significant resources on legal fees and several years in court.”

“The restaurant and its owners have never ‘stolen’ wages or tips from employees, nor have they retaliated against employees,” he wrote in a statement. “It just didn’t happen.”

Salary theft has been a long-standing problem in low-income immigrant enclaves, especially in the restaurant industry.

From 2010 to 2012, the Department of Labor’s Wages and Hours division conducted a compliance scan of nearly 9,000 full-service restaurants and found that nearly 84% of them had violated labor standards, including violations of wages and tips.

Palyn Hung Mitchell, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus who worked on the Z&Y settlement, said “low-wage immigrant workers of color” are more likely to be exploited “regardless the race of their boss “.

They are less likely to know and defend their rights, she said, due to language barriers, fear of eviction or reprisal and a determined focus on providing “food and shelter. for themselves and their families ”.

In New York City, Joy Luck Palace, a closed dim sum salon, was ordered in 2019 to pay 19 former employees nearly $ 1 million in stolen wages, ranging from failure to minimum wage and overtime. To date, union organizers say none of the employees have received any money from the court judgment.

Since the spring, they have been protesting in reaction to the attention the media and local politicians have given to Patrick Mock, a defendant and co-owner who has been seen as a leader and face of Chinatown’s advocacy during the pandemic. They have also been at the forefront of the fight to pass the Securing Earned Wages Against Theft Bill (SWEAT), a law that would allow workers to put a lien on their employers and strengthen the application of salary theft.

Mock did not respond to NBC Asian America’s request for comment.

Sarah Anh, a union organizer at the Flushing Workers Center, said the strength of the labor movements in New York’s Chinatown can be attributed to the presence of a strong union of restaurants and community organizations.

“I think Covid-19 has been a revelation in a lot of ways,” she said. “We see the callousness of bosses who don’t really care about their employees. They are just determined to make as much money as possible.

In Boston, three local Chinese grocery stores were ordered to pay nearly $ 1 million in May for alleged wage theft and other labor violations. Two years earlier, Happy Lamb Hot Pot in Chinatown had entered into a nearly $ 900,000 wage theft deal with 14 former employees.

The owners of Happy Lamb Hot Pot did not respond to a request for comment.

Karen Chen, executive director of the Boston chapter of the Chinese Progressive Association, said the pandemic had exacerbated the sense of economic anxiety that already prevailed in the community.

“People were concerned about their rights when things reopened,” she said. “They want to know if anyone in the workplace has had Covid, or if a customer has had Covid, should they shut down again?”

In Chinatown, organized labor is steeped in history.

“Workers in Chinatown were unionized in early San Francisco,” Liu said, noting that 19th-century Chinese railway workers went on strike after finding out they earned less than their white counterparts. “From the start, they have always come together to fight back and demand more justice. “

More recently, Liu said, a landmark case laid the groundwork for immigrant workers at Z&Y and elsewhere. In 2014, some 300 employees staged and won a record $ 4 million salary theft settlement against Yank Sing, a reputable dim sum salon that won a James Beard Award in 2009. benefits.

“The Yank Sing campaign was a very important example for workers across the country of what low-wage immigrant workers can do if they stand up and gain the support of community groups,” Liu said. “They can not only hold employers accountable for past abuse in the workplace, but also push them to make change.”

Hung Mitchell, Asian Law Caucus, said the success of the Z&Y case may encourage other restaurant workers to organize for better terms.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “it’s about: How can we ensure that the jobs we are desperately trying to restore are better jobs? How can we make sure that the workplaces we strive to keep open are safe and healthy workplaces? “

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