Employees say firms using bankruptcy to not pay wages

About 50 immigrant Chinese American workers demonstrated against labor abuses in San Francisco on Wednesday, citing instances in which they said companies had used bankruptcy laws to get out of paying their employees.

Workers called for more aggressive enforcement of wage laws and for corporate bankruptcy reform, in a protest organized by the Asian Law Caucus and the Chinese Progressive Association that began at Battery and Market streets and ended at federal Bankruptcy Court, 235 Pine St.

The groups pointed to cases involving three San Francisco businesses: King Tin restaurant in Chinatown, Win Fashion garment factory and New On Sang Poultry Market. All used bankruptcy to avoid liability for employees' pay, and together the three owe workers close to $2 million in unpaid wages and penalties, organizers said.

"The problem is that the laws shield individuals who claim the company has no money to pay workers," said Joannie Chang of the Asian Law Caucus. "Overwhelmingly, the laws protect corporations and not the workers."

On Sept. 24, 11 former workers of King Tin filed claims for more than $450,000 in back wages with the San Francisco Office of Labor Standards Enforcement and the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.

The restaurant closed in July, after workers organized and contacted state labor officials about months of unpaid wages. On Sept. 27, the restaurant filed for bankruptcy.

"The corporation is insolvent," said Douglas Van Vlear, attorney for King Tin. "There's no money."

Win Fashion filed for bankruptcy in 1997 and was placed in liquidation in July 2001. The state has since found evidence of $1 million in unpaid wages and sued three company executives -- Jimmy Quan, his wife, Anna Wong, and her sister, Jenny Wong -- for allegedly violating the minimum-wage law. It is seeking $3.7 million in damages, penalties and interest.

Last month, a federal indictment charged that the three garment executives had diverted $4.7 million in payments from a contractor to a related firm, Wins of California, and another firm they controlled. They are also accused of hiding $2 million worth of garment and fabrics from the Bankruptcy Court to keep them free of creditors of Wins of California, which filed for bankruptcy in August 2001.

John Chu, lawyer for the executives, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

New On Sang Poultry owes four workers a total of $178,000 in back wages and penalties, Chang said. In April 2003, the firm's president, Suzanne Hoo, filed for bankruptcy.

"Nothing in the bankruptcy petition would suggest it would be adverse to her workers," said Robert Kawamoto, Hoo's attorney. "Any beef they have should be directed to the corporation."

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

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