Exploitation in Chinese Restaurants in New York City

New York City hosts a vast amount of different types of restaurants and catering services. Many of which include that of the Chinese variant. As of 2011, there is roughly an amount of 6000 Chinese restaurants located in New York City. As the number grows, competition does as well. Often times this is a good thing. It forces restaurant owners to improve there businesses through either providing higher quality meals and/or giving a much larger variety of meals for customers to eat and savor. Of course, there are also times where it forces restaurant owners to conduct underhanded and even illegal activities. One of such activities can be the exploitation of employees that work within the restaurant.
There are of course, different ways that restaurant owners may exploit their own employees. Namely there are three main types of exploitation – Force, Fraud, and Coercion. Force includes using any certain type of restrictions on the worker’s ability to leave the restaurant or housing; as well as intentionally imposing exhausting work hours, physical and/or sexual abuse, and constant surveillance. Fraud could include any of the following: misrepresentation of the work, working conditions, wages, and immigration benefits of the job; altered or bogus contracts; non-payment, underpayment or confiscation of wages; visa fraud e.g. allowing a legitimate visa to expire or failing to provide a promised visa, thereby increasing the worker’s vulnerability to threats of deportation (in the case of illegal immigrants) and limiting his or her alternative job options. The third and last way is known as coercion; where the manager would exploit a foreign national restaurant worker’s unfamiliarity with the language, laws and customs of the US labor laws, use security equipment to monitor workers’ locations, use threats of deportation or other harm to the victim or the victim’s family, use verbal and psychological abuse; confiscation of passports and visas, and even debt manipulation. Any usage of these three methods is illegal under United States Federal Labor Laws.

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center explains how in highly populated states such as Texas, California, Ohio, Florida, and New York; restaurant exploitation is difficult to prove. The biggest reason is due to the nature of the restaurant business itself. Waiters and waitresses, for example, have to rely on the tips from subjective customers in order to gain any some sort of wage. However, it is much more than that. For instance, kitchen staff, dishwashers, and even cooks may work over 70 hours a week in the most extreme instances, and typically do not receive any sort of sick leave or paid vacation. Thus, the discrepancies and differences are very, very difficult to ascertain between legal and illegal working conditions within this industry. Exploiters thus take advantage of this system by demanding more work for less pay, as well denying any sort of paid vacation leave. What makes this even more difficult is the tendency of such managers hiring foreign workers, many of which are illegally residing in the country.

A survey conducted by the organization known as Restaurant Opportunities Center United (or ROC) even found more specific details of some of the deplorable nature within the restaurant industry. The research was compiled from more than 4000 surveys, 240 employer interviews, 240 worker interviews, as well as government data analysis. The findings were grim. From the sample size, the organization found out that roughly 87 % of restaurant workers do not get paid sick days while 46 % reported to have experienced at least some kind of overtime violation. Lastly, in 2009, the average yearly income for restaurant workers was roughly $15,000; compared to the average of around private sector workers being set to $45,000; three times the amount.
It becomes even more difficult to resolve these issues when many of the restaurant workers were born outside of the country. Even more significantly, many of these employees may be illegal immigrants that have been smuggled through into America to work in these heavily populated urban areas.
One such example has occurred in a Chinese Restaurant in New York City. The Resource Center omitted certain details to protect the confidentiality of the employee, however the details provided are more than enough to shed a disturbing light on the issue. According to the organization, they received information about “An employee at a Polish community center that learned about a potential labor trafficking situation at a Chinese restaurant from a woman who had recently left the situation.“ According to what the employee had learned, the woman had been recruited from Poland to come work in the U.S. She also stated that she along with her fellow employees had to work for roughly 12 – 14 hours for little pay in this particular Chinese restaurant. More disturbingly, were the details of the residence these employees lived in. The report stated that “They all lived together in a house near the restaurant that was monitored with security cameras, and the workers could only leave the house to go to work.”
In 2008, another massive instance of restaurant exploitation in New York City involved a certain Saigon Grill Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant embroiled in a court case. This restaurant, which was located on the Upper West Side near Union Square, was forced to reward an eventual $4.6 million judgment to the restaurant employees that were exploited by the owners. 36 former employees of the Saigon Grill are all immigrants from China’s Fuijian Province. Due to their recent immigrant status, these employees were still unaware of the certain rights and legalities that are granted to them under the United States Law. The restaurant owners certainly didn’t meet the minimum wage; the employees were paid far bellow it and, in some instances, were paid only two dollars an hour for their services. Some had to contend with workweeks that exceeded well over eighty hours. Besides the meager pay and brutishly long work hours, which were clearly in violation of state and federal labor laws, the treatment of the restaurant workers themselves was found to be hugely deplorable. It was found that the managers of these employees fined them for very negligible actions. These actions included failing to log deliveries into the computer system or letting a door slam too loudly. The managers also forced their employees to kick back their wages due to failing to complete their non- delivery work promptly, such as filling sauce containers. There was a previous law suit attempted to be filed against the restaurant in 2007, 22 of these employees that had planned to due so were fired in retaliation by the restaurant.
The $4.6 million was rewarded to the 36 defendants in accordance to the violation of the wage and hour guidelines set by the United States and New York labor laws. Additional rewards were also being considered for the other illegal action, the “retaliation” conducted by Saigon Grill against the 22 employees that had originally planned an earlier lawsuit. As well as the managers of the restaurant, the court found liable three others, which included the restaurants’ founder, Simon Nget; Michelle Nget – his wife, who directly managed all of the delivery operations and had an ownership interest in the business; as well as Sung Truong, who oversaw the operations of the delivery workers at the Union Square location.
The David Polk and Wardwell firm in conjunction with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund represented the group of employees in their successful trial.
Exploitation of restaurant workers is an unfortunate side effect to the expanding restaurant business in not only New York City, but around America. Competition between restaurants and employees themselves sometimes forces both parties to engage in illegal and abusive behavior. Chinese restaurants are very vulnerable to this development, since many of such restaurants are privately owned, thus are not held to a certain standard that a major restaurant chain may be held to. They also have access to a massive immigration group coming from Mainland China that is very unfamiliar to the legislation in America. Lastly, the sheer number of these small businesses make it much more easy for illegal immigrants to find a job almost immediately.

Sources Cited:

[1]”New National Survey Puts Just Two NYC Restaurants in Top 100.
[2]”Labor Trafficking in the Restaurant Industry
[3]”Behind the Kitchen Door: A Multi-site Study of the Restaurant Industry” </>.
[4]”Saigon Grill Workers Get $4.6 Million Payday.” Grub Street New York

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