Chinese-American Workers Campaign Hard for Higher Wage

It’s simple math. She works 12 hours a month as a housekeeper and at $3.75 her earnings total $45. Her husband, who has retired, receives $425 in benefits every month.

“We can’t afford to live independently,” said Zhou, currently staying with her son’s family in a low-income housing facility, “with our meager income, we can’t afford to rent an apartment.”

Eighteen years ago, Zhou moved to the United States from Guangdong, a southern province adjacent to Hong Kong in China. In addition to the housekeeping job, she also volunteers at Chinese Progressive Association, a grassroots Chinese-American rights organization supporting the Minimum Wage Campaign. Although she understands it is unlikely to raise her wage — already $3 below the state’s minimum wage — she would like to help others make more money.

“People who don’t speak EnglishÖlike meÖ actually wouldn’t benefit from the Minimum Wage Campaign,” said Zhou, “When you are Chinese, and work for a Chinese boss, a lot of deals are under the table. You will never get the minimum wage, not to mention a wage raise. But I’ll be happy to see my son and friends earn more.”

Proposition L will be on San Francisco’s November 4 ballot. If passed, it will raise the minimum wage in the city to $8.50 an hour from $6.75 an hour. It would also require an annual inflation adjustment.

Feiyi Chen, who works part-time for the Chinese Progressive Association, has been fighting for workers’ rights for years.

When she arrived in the United States in 1998, Chen spoke no English and could only work at a sewing factory where she earned $30 to $40 dollars for a ten-hour day. Later she became an electronics assembly worker, earning $7 an hour. She worked there for two years before the factory was shut down.

“I usually worked ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week,” said Chen. “Our boss was very mean. And we had to work really hard to meet the requirement.”

Even then, Chen said, she was happy about her increased wage.

“When people like me move to this country,” said Chen, “we don’t speak English and have to take the positions with no language requirement. And those are normally lowly paid jobs.”

In San Francisco, more than 50,000 workers live on low wages. Asian Americans, who make up for about 36 percent of San Francisco’s temporary workforce, count for almost 50 percent of the low-wage part-time workers.

The Chinese Progressive Association has been working hard to push the Minimum Wage Campaign among workers, but some workers fear that an increase will cost them their jobs, because employers may cut their workforce.

Gwyneth Borden, director of Government Relations for the city’s Chamber of Commerce said the proposed ordinance will put San Francisco at “a competitive disadvantage in attracting and maintaining jobs”.

“In the current economic climate a local minimum wage will mean loss of jobs,” said Borden, referring to a survey done earlier this year, “35 percent of employers said they would reduce hours, layoff staff or close down.”

Moreover, she said, when companies pay more they want a more qualified person. As a result the wage hike will “disproportionately impact lower-skilled, lower-income workers since there are a large number of skilled unemployed people who would be willing to work for the higher minimum wage”.

The Chinese Progressive Association, however, remains optimistic about the influence on small businesses.

“The $8.50 per hour wage will put an extra $3,000 per year to the pocket of a worker,” said Gordon Mar, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, “they will spend the money in local restaurants and other small businesses. But if a corporate person has an extra $3,000, he or she may buy stocks or spend the money on overseas trips.”

Mar also provided statistics showing that 95 per cent of businesses surveyed would see no more than a 5 per cent operating cost increases if Proposition L passes.

Michael Reich, professor of economics at UC Berkeley, said that an increase in wages does not always result in a decrease in employment. From 1996 to 2002, he found in a recent study, California’s minimum wage increased nearly 60 percent, while at the same time the state’s employment growth rate of 18.3 percent was higher than the national average of 12.6 percent.

“In all industries, businesses said they are more likely to increase efficiency, raise prices, or find an alternate method of adjusting to cost increases than they are to lay off workers, reduce worker hours, relocate outside the city or shut down,” said Reich. “I think the initiative would have a positive effect on the local economy and that the proportion of employers that would be substantially affected is very small.”

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