WASHINGTON – Asian Americans are reporting varied forms of job discrimination, with complicating factors – cultural and economic – that make it extra hard for them to win rights, wages and benefits, a panel told D.C. unionists on May 21.

The panel, at a Workers Rights hearing called by the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), an AFL-CIO constituency group, drew agreement from the room full of attendees including from AFL-CIO education coordinator David Carpio and from former Service Employee Union organizer Miya Chen, now a White House liaison on Asian-American issues.

Speakers ranged from an activist for nail salon workers – who noted two-thirds of her colleagues are “independent contractors” deprived of labor law protections – to a young Thai woman who just finished her 5-year apprenticeship training with Electrical Workers Local 26 and will become a journeyman electrician on June 4.

They also included a Filipina teacher whose union, the Prince Georges County, Md., Education Association, went to bat for Filipina teachers whom the county schools illegally forced to pay various Visa fees. The Obama administration Labor Department fined the county school system millions of dollars in the case.

Job discrimination against Asian Americans is important: They’re the fastest-growing minority group in the U.S., and now number 15 million nationwide. Their share of the U.S. workforce doubled in the last decade. And the 2010 census showed double-digit percentage increases in the Asian American population in many states, including Maryland (up 51 percent) and Virginia (more than 70 percent). 

On-the-job problems they face include exposure to toxic chemicals. Tina Pham, a community organizer with the Nail Salon Project – which advocates for workers’ rights and job protections for spa and salon workers – noted that manicurists in nail salons are exposed to up to 10,000 chemicals in the nail polishes they apply to their customers’ digits. Standards for exposing workers to most of those chemicals have not been changed in years.

Workers face two barriers in regard to forcing changes in the unsafe conditions, she added: Two-thirds of the workers are “independent contractors” and 42 percent of salons are family-owned establishments, usually Vietnamese-owned, where workers are toiling for relatives or other community members. There is a social taboo against complaining about your own community, Pham admitted.

Korean-American restaurant worker Woong Chang, now also an activist with the Restaurant Opportunities Center, a workers’ rights group, said there is pervasive racial discrimination in restaurant jobs. Whites and males get up-front jobs that produce better pay and larger tips – such as being servers – while African Americans and other minorities are restricted to the back. And even when they’re qualified, as he is with eight years’ experience and a bachelor’s degree, they’re denied promotions and raises.

Restaurant workers also get abysmal pay. The regular minimum wage law does not cover workers who depend on tips, including restaurant workers. They’re subject to “tipped wage” laws in each state, which set much lower minimums: $2.77 per hour in D.C. and seven other states; $2.13 nationally. Workers are expected to make up the difference from tips. The national minimum hasn’t risen in 20 years, Chang said. Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., a former restaurant worker, has introduced legislation to raise the minimum. But managers at restaurants frequently cheat their tipped workers when the tips are pooled.  “Leave cash,” Chang counseled diners, and tip generously.

Rateeluck “Tarn” Puvapiromquan, the IBEW member, provided the contrast. She described how IBEW’s “earn while you learn” training prepared her for a new, well-paying career, on an equal footing with other electricians. It also provided something else non-union workers lack: “OSHA training, so I’m aware of unsafe working conditions.  Now, if I see something, I can tell a co-worker: ‘You might want to adjust that ladder.’  Before, I wouldn’t know.”  That will prevent accidents on the job, she said.

“As long as you followed the training program, raises were guaranteed. We have overtime pay, holiday pay, health care with dental and vision benefits, a credit union” and “equal pay for equal work” and “a voice on the job” at both worksites and in the local, the young woman said. “It’s made me a better-informed citizen, too.”

Rajini Raj, a National Nurses Union member and native of India, also provided another contrast, describing her union local’s long struggle and eventual win for better staff-patient ratios and higher quality care at Washington Hospital Center. It took a one-day strike and four-day lockout by the region’s largest hospital to bring an agreement. All 18 nurses whom the hospital illegally fired for pro-union views are being instated, or will be.

“We will still continue to speak out as our patients’ advocates,” Raj stated.

“Our dream became a nightmare” for many Filipina teachers who came to the U.S., brought in by school districts short of qualified science and math teachers, said Millet Panga, the Prince George’s County teacher. Not only did the Labor Department order the county school system to repay the teachers the money they laid out for Visa coverage, but it must drop its plan to let the Visas expire, thus forcing the teachers out.

“We need the broader community at large to be involved in these struggles,” said David Carpio, the AFL-CIO’s education and training coordinator.  “We may think such injustice is exceptional and that it’s happening irregularly. But we know it’s not. It’s organized, it’s planned and it’s intentional.”



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.