SAN FRANCISCO - Whether in Kansas, Florida, Iowa, New York, California, or places in between, if you are a low wage worker, you are at high risk for wage theft - unpaid, delayed or subminimum wages. A long list of recent stories in the mainstream press has highlighted such practices - with Asian Pacific Islander, African American, Latino and young workers the likeliest targets - and the fight-back growing stronger.
One such fight-back is being waged here. The San Francisco-based Chinese Progressive Association last month released a far-reaching report on the problems faced by restaurant workers in this city's Chinatown, based on surveys of 433 restaurant workers interviewed by their peers, and observations of 106 restaurants.
The study, "Check Please", conducted in partnership with the San Francisco Public Health Department and several University of California health and labor programs, found that half the surveyed workers reported being paid less than the minimum wage - a violation costing Chinatown restaurant workers an estimated $8 million a year in lost wages. Kitchen workers and dishwashers reported the highest rates of minimum wage violations.
Other abuses such as withholding or delaying wages for weeks or months, and bosses taking part of workers' tips, were also rampant.
Most of the workers, and most of their employers, were Chinese immigrants.
Among common abuses were long working hours - 42 percent reported working more than 40 hours a week and half of those worked 60 or more hours - short or no rest or meal breaks, very high injury rates, work environments that were often stressful and unsupportive, lack of health coverage and time off to deal with health conditions.
Underemployment was also a problem, with nearly half those surveyed saying they worked 30 hours a week or less.
With wages averaging $8.17 an hour - this city's minimum was $9.36 at the time of the study - and 13 percent of workers earning $5 an hour or less, only 5 percent earned a living wage and none earned enough to support a family of four.
Health problems were rampant and nearly one-third of the workers said their health was worse than in the previous year. All employers in the city with 20 or more workers must spend a basic amount on employees' health care, but the survey found just 3 percent of employers providing health care.
Over two-thirds of those surveyed felt their jobs were not secure, and most lacked time to spend with family, pursue educational goals, or join in community activities.
While each industry has its own special problems, the Chinatown restaurant workers' experiences are very similar to those of other low wage workers around the country, Shaw San Liu, lead organizer with the CPA's Worker Organizing Center, told radio station KPFA's labor analyst David Bacon Oct. 20.
"In the 21st century," she said, "there is no place for sweatshops."
Among the report's recommendations:
• Local governments should shift to proactive, "investigation-driven" enforcement and not wait for workers' complaints.
• Increase funding for enforcement, assure adequate bilingual staff and strengthen penalties for violations. Work closely with community organizations and advocates to spot and target violators.
• Increase workers' ability to take action by stepping up education, streamlining the complaint process and increasing protections against retaliation.
• More investment by the city and public agencies in diversified economic development in Chinatown, including a range of supports for businesses that meet wage and labor standards and treat workers well. Also, more investment in education and job training for workers, especially those with barriers to employment.
The report also noted that under the Obama administration's Labor Secretary, Hilda Solis, the Labor Department "is undergoing a significant and promising shift in policy to strengthen federal enforcement of labor laws" and to involve "workers, community organizations, and other government agencies."
The Chinese Progressive Association is a founding member of the Progressive Workers' Alliance a coalition formed earlier this year to bring low-wage workers together across language, race and community, to fight wage theft and other violations of workers' rights, and to oppose city budget cuts that would hit low income residents hardest.
Photo: Marilyn Bechtel