Why Certain Workers Are More Vulnerable to Wage Theft

The problem of wage theft is not confined to any one industry, ethnicity, size of business, or corporate structure, says Labor Commissioner Julie Su. Each year, California loses approximately $8 billion in tax revenues to wage theft, and Su’s office has investigated millions of dollars’ worth of violations committed by, among others, a hospital, assisted living providers, and a construction project. But restaurants in Chinatown are particularly egregious offenders: A 2010 report by the CPA found that half of Chinatown restaurant workers have had their wages undercut, payments withheld, or tips stolen. A survey of low-wage workers in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, performed by the National Employment Labor Project, reveals that close to 85 percent of foreign-born Asians, 78.8 percent of women, and nearly 85 percent of undocumented workers have experienced overtime violations.

Among the most likely victims of wage theft are nonunion workers, people who don’t speak English, and immigrants who lack an understanding of their rights. Not all of the workers involved in the Yank Sing campaign fell into these categories, but many still felt vulnerable. If they went public too soon, if they picketed the sidewalk or stormed the dining room or publicized their story in the media, they risked turning management against them and losing their livelihood— and many of them wanted to keep working for Yank Sing. Their situation was unusual: According to Kao of the Asian Law Caucus, three-quarters of the wage claims received by the organization’s free legal clinic in San Francisco are filed by workers who have already left their job. People who are still employed, notes Victor Narro, project director at the UCLA Labor Center, typically don’t risk such actions without the protection of a union contract.

Vanessa Hua, writing for San Francisco Magazine about a brigade of kitchen workers who successfully fought to recoup $4 million in lost wages from Yank Sing, one of San Francisco’s premier dim sum restaurants.

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