SF Chronicle Op-Ed: Research on Asian American Workers Shows the Myth of the ‘Model Minority’

If California’s economy is to work for everyone, we must understand all workers: who they are and the barriers they face to advancing economically.

It is clear that California’s economy is not working for everyone. San Francisco had the state’s widest income disparity from 2006 to 2018, with the top 5% of households making 50 times the income of the lowest 20%. People of color earn the lowest wages, on average in the Bay Area and state.

This includes Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), who represent a majority of recent immigrants to California and the nation’s fastest-growing working-age population. Too often, researchers combine California’s nearly 7 million AAPI residents as one group, obscuring the specific perspectives and needs of very different communities. California’s Chinese community is lumped with residents of Hawaiian ancestry, data on Hmong immigrants is grouped with that of Japanese Americans, and so on.

AAPI workers represent dozens of countries, speak different languages, and have varying experiences on the job, so combining their data creates troubling confusion. Despite the stereotype of AAPI workers as high-paid technical professionals, the reality is AAPI workers are overrepresented at the high and low end of wages — and face particular barriers to moving up.

A recent report digs deeper into the experiences and perspectives of California’s AAPI workers. The James Irvine Foundation commissioned AAPI Data and the Public Religion Research Institute to survey AAPI communities in seven languages. The numbers are telling: Nearly four in 10 (38%) AAPI workers in California struggle with poverty. Hmong and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders report struggling at even higher percentages, while Chinese and Filipino Californians account for the majority of struggling workers (per their larger populations).

Only 56% of struggling AAPI workers still believe in the American Dream (“If you work hard, you’ll get ahead”), and AAPI Californians born here have less optimism than new immigrants. Equally troubling: 63% of all AAPI Californians — regardless of work — believe that employers see them as replaceable.

Such pessimism comes from harsh working realities. In the past year, six in 10 (59%) struggling AAPI workers report at least one negative experience (injury, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, being underpaid). More than one-third (35%) of struggling workers have experienced wage theft recently (receiving less than minimum wage, wages withheld for no reason, etc.).

Not surprising, 69% of AAPI Californians believe it’s important for workers to organize for their rights and protections.

Even when workers know their rights, those who dare speak out often face retaliation and harassment. That’s why it’s encouraging to see an increase in AAPI worker empowerment and organizing, from hotel to health care workers, including examples in workplaces without union representation but with the support of community organizations.

Workers like a 70-year-old Chinese immigrant who is the breadwinner for his son and ill wife. He commutes three hours to wash dishes for nine hours, earns minimum wage, and has struggled to find housing after being evicted. The Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) has helped him overcome his fears and lack of familiarity with the legal system to participate in wage theft investigations of his former employer.

CPA has supported hundreds of workers to assert their rights, recoup unpaid wages, and change policies on rest breaks, sick days, and fair scheduling. CPA also supported workers at Yank Sing restaurant to win a historic $4 million wage theft settlement and other reforms, making the employer a model in the industry.

CPA and other worker and community organizations are also partnering with local and state agencies, with Irvine Foundation support, on labor standards and enforcement, including identifying workers not receiving their full wages and engaging workers in advocating for better working conditions. The need is significant: each year nearly 600,000 California workers fail to receive their full pay — an average of $3,400 per worker affected. This partnership also helps ensure that the majority of employers who abide by the rules have a more level playing field.

The Irvine Foundation provides grants to the partnership, which focuses on seven low-wage, high-violation industries in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the Central Coast and Central Valley. The goals include collecting unpaid wages and engaging workers in advocating for better working conditions and so far has helped return millions of dollars in unpaid wages for workers.

These and other successes show that workers with information, access, and community support can transform their working conditions, their industries, and their economic future. For this we need more disaggregated data about all workers, but we also need the public, private, and philanthropic sectors to pay attention to that data — and empower workers facing the greatest barriers. That’s how we make the economy work for everyone.

Don Howard is president and chief executive officer of the James Irvine Foundation; Shaw San Liu is executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association.

This op-ed appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle website on February 11th, 2020.

Link: Research on Asian American workers shows the myth of the ‘model minority’