Restaurant Sweatshops in LA Koreatown

By Mike Liu


Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates (KIWA) in Los Angeles has released a study on restaurants workers. They concluded, "As part of L.A.'s 'sweatshop' economy, Koreatown restaurants pay workers far below the legal minimum wage while imposing 12-14 hours of back-breaking labor each day."


Their survey of 100 workers showed that neighborhood restaurant owners routinely violate minimum-wage laws and other legal safeguards for the approximately 2,000 restaurant workers in Koreatown. The Los Angeles restaurant work force in Koreatown's 300 restaurants is almost entirely nonunion. A Hotel and Restaurant union (HERE) organizer noted that restaurants, particularly small ones with a low-wage immigrant staffs and substantial turnover, are considered especially difficult union organizing targets. The work force is primarily Korean and Latino.


The study's findings included: · Slightly more than half the workers surveyed said they worked 40 to 60 hours per week. More than one-quarter said they worked more than 60 hours a week. The survey said that overtime pay was rare. · Few receive health-care insurance or have access to workers' compensation. 40% said they had suffered backaches, burns, slips or other injuries. · There has been an upward trend in wages among Koreatown restaurant workers, who are mostly Latino and Korean immigrants. Almost two-thirds reported earning at least the minimum wage, now $5.75 an hour. Two years ago, these same workers said, only about a third of them were earning the legal wage. · Working conditions are particularly bad for illegal immigrants.


According to Danny Park, a case manager at KIWA, working conditions are horrendous. "In addition to showering verbal abuse on the workers, the employers often order their workers to do things that are clearly not included in any restaurant worker's job description: going out to buy a pack of cigarettes, baby-sitting employers' children on days off, and sometimes even doing the employers' laundry." It is also common for employers to fire their workers without giving them notice or a reason.


KIWA has gradually developed a new approach emphasizing workers' initiative, one that explores the potential of individual cases to be developed into a bigger fight. This bigger fight involves public actions. KIWA has recently settled a case where one owner blacklisted a worker who sought unpaid wages. Out of the negotiations, KIWA secured a contract that was industry-wide in scope.