Less than minimum
Enforcement of the city's new wage law is lax in immigrant communities like Chinatown
By Thea Lavin
Five stories above the frenzied Chinatown traffic, Mei sat in front of a table covered with pale blue pay stubs in the office of the Chinese Progressive Association, a workers advocacy group.
Carefully sorting the stubs into rubber-banded groups, Mei described her work schedule at her old job at King Tin Restaurant on Washington Street. Through a Cantonese translator, Mei said that for working 91 hours a week at King Tin, she earned just $1,300 a month, or about $3.50 an hour.
"I came in at noon every day and worked until 3 [p.m.]," said Mei, who, like all workers quoted in this story, asked the Bay Guardian not to use her real name. "Then I had a break until 5 p.m., when I started again and worked until 5 or 6 a.m. Thursday was my half day off."
Mei is one of 11 King Tin workers who claim they were paid illegally low wages, even though San Francisco voters last year approved legislation to increase the incomes of the city's lowest-paid workers. In the seven months since the city's minimum-wage law, Proposition L, took effect, the situation for King Tin workers only grew worse, according to staffers of the CPA.
"No one is getting the minimum wage in Chinatown," King Tin worker Tam, who immigrated from China's Guangdong province, told us through a translator. According to pay stubs provided by the CPA, Tam and his coworkers each earned $1,300 a month for 70 hours of dishwashing, cooking, and janitorial duties.
King Tin abruptly closed in July, after 20 years of business in the same Chinatown location, according to Edward Liu, a lawyer representing the Hip Sen Benevolent Association, which owns the building rented by the restaurant. Our efforts to reach Andrew Chan, the main contact on the restaurant's business license, for comment were unsuccessful
"They abandoned the premises on July 16 and owe about $100,000 dollars in back rent," Liu said. "I have no idea where the owners are, though. I don't even know where to serve my papers to."
After the restaurant closed, its workers, none of whom speak English, sought help from the CPA, which filed complaints with the San Francisco Office of Labor Standards Enforcement on their behalf. None of the city's wage enforcement officers are bilingual, a fact labor advocates say makes implementation of the minimum-wage difficult in immigrant communities.
"They don't speak English, and the city workers don't speak Cantonese, so they had to come to us," the CPA's Alex Tom told us. "Everyone's filing to get the difference between their monthly salaries and the minimum wage from the past three years, which is how far back you can file."
King Tin workers say that not only were they paid less than minimum wage, but they also received lump-sum monthly checks for unlimited hours of work. "They were doing it [paying in lump sums] before the minimum wage went up to $8.50, but it is much more common now," said Tam, when asked how widespread the practice is in Chinatown.
Linda, an employee of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce who wouldn't tell us her last name, said the group doesn't know how common such lump-sum payments for unlimited work are in Chinatown. "I just heard about the King Tin situation from Chinese newspapers," she said. "I don't know if other Chinatown restaurants are paying in monthly salaries."
It isn't the first time King Tin workers have alleged unfair wages. In 1994 more than 20 workers won a U.S. Department of Labor claim for back wages against the restaurant. Mei received $1,900 for unpaid overtime, although she says she didn't receive any further overtime hours after that.
Many labor advocates say state and city minimum wages aren't enforced in ways that are meaningful to vulnerable, non-English-speaking workers. "A big problem in the state process that is replicated on the city level is that workers get no help filing claims," said Joannie Chang, the director of Employment and Labor Projects at the Asian Law Caucus. "The state says, 'We have to be unbiased, so we can't help workers file claims.' But there is already an inequality for the disadvantaged."
Several King Tin workers say they were aware of the state and city minimum-wage laws but feared retaliation from employers and didn't know where to report violations.
"I knew about the minimum wage, and I knew I wasn't receiving it, but I didn't know I had any protection," Kim said. Kim started working 60 hours a week for $1,300 a month soon after he immigrated from Zhong Shan, China, in 1998. "Because we don't speak English, we have to stay in Chinatown to work, and we will be retaliated against by other employers if they see our name in the paper."