Chinese workers protest abrupt firings

Immigrant Chinese workers rallied at City Hall yesterday, protesting their sudden layoff from a San Francisco electronics manufacturer last week.

Lee Mah Electronics fired about 250 employees, 15 percent of its workforce, from its Folsom Street plant on Friday, according to Leon Chow, chairman of the Chinese Progressive Association, a nonprofit organization that assists low- income immigrants.

The employees, mostly women in their 30s, were told there was no more work available at the plant, which assembles circuit boards and telecom switching equipment.

Lee Mah allegedly asked workers -- many of whom speak only Cantonese and Mandarin -- to sign a letter of termination, written in English, before they could receive their final paychecks. Workers said they were not given a 60-day notice as required by law, and they told Chow they did not receive full vacation and back pay. Their wages were $7.25 and $8 per hour, workers told him.

Lee Mah did not return repeated calls for comment.

"When the incident happened on Friday, no one knew where to go," Chow said. "They don't speak English. They could have let it slide. Fortunately, the workers here are very angry. They feel violated."

The dispute is the second in recent months involving employees in San Francisco who don't speak English.

"It's extremely sad that this is happening to Chinese workers, particularly since the owner of the business is Chinese himself," said Supervisor Leland Yee, who said the city will help provide rental assistance and other services.

Yee also asked the city attorney to research how to prevent such unexpected terminations.

The federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Act requires employers to notify workers and the government 60 days in advance of a large layoff or shutdown. But the law applies only to companies that employ more than 100 workers or fire at least 500 workers at a location.

In August, Wins of California, a San Francisco garment factory, shut down after a government investigation alleged that the business owed more than $850, 000 in wages. Many of the workers, who allegedly went unpaid for three months, were afraid to step forward and speak to investigators.

Founded in 1971 by Bing Hong Mah, Lee Mah provides parts for Hewlett- Packard, Lucent Technologies, Texas Instruments, Systron Donner and others. Lee Mah has seven manufacturing facilities in the Bay Area, employing close to 950 before the layoffs. There are an additional 240 employees in Texas and 400 in China.

According to the company Web site, Mah was born in Taishan, China. As a teenager, he and his family immigrated to Canada. After graduating from high school, Mah moved to San Francisco, studied electronics and became an engineer.

Mah has supported a number of causes in Chinatown. Last year, Chinatown's Self-Help for the Elderly honored Mah for his longtime support. In 1999, Mah donated $10,000 to the Chinese Newcomers Association.

E-mail Vanessa Hua at ahua@sfchronicle.com.

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