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Asian American Studies 197A
Winter Quarter 2002

Koreatown Restaurant Workers Organizing Campaign

Chong Ahn, Minyoung Bae, Esther Cho, Eleanor Choi, Jean Kim, Brian Lim, Sean Na

Introduction

As UCLA students, we see Koreatown as an arena that encompasses our Korean culture here in Los Angeles, whether it be indulging in the Korean cuisine, finding Korean groceries, or socializing at karaoke bars or dance clubs. When we look past the external appearances, we can see that there are many important intricate pieces that contribute to the growth of Koreatown’s economy. Of course, we have grown accustomed to seeing Latino employees in Korean-owned small businesses. For many of us, we assumed that the reason to explain such dynamics would be that since the area is heavily populated by Latinos, both ethnicities have made shared-use of the space. However, as we delved further into our research in the Koreatown restaurant industry, we discovered some secrets that had been kept hidden.

The exploitation of immigrant workers in Koreatown was once a sheltered issue, closed to the public’s awareness. Even after the situations were exposed through the actions of community organizations and its advocates, the community reacted silently and angrily because those issues were shameful and wanted to keep it behind closed doors. Eventually community organizations and the exploited restaurant workers came together to create a voice that was being heard. The majority of these restaurant workers were Korean immigrant employees who were fighting back against unjust working conditions. In essence, Korean women were at the heart of the foundation of the Korean Restaurant Workers Campaign.

The themes that our research is going to touch upon include interethnic unity between Korean and Latino workers, the changing gender relationship between male employers and female employees, confronting globalization issues, and expanding worker’s human rights and increasing awareness about California labor laws. Through these labor struggles, even though they were a negative reflection on working society, it brought about positive outcomes and improved working conditions in the Korean-owned restaurants.

Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates (KIWA)

The Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates (KIWA) is a community organization that "works to build grassroots multi-ethnic base of low wage immigrant workers (MIWON 1)." Located in Koreatown, KIWA was founded in March 1992 and was derived from the Multi-ethnic Immigrant Workers Organizing Network (MIWON). KIWA has made "significant contributions to the empowerment of Korean immigrant workers through successful worker-led campaigns and organizing (MIWON 2)." The organization "continuously works with other progressive organizations to contribute to the numerous issues that affect workers and their families by communicating, supporting, advocating, and building strong coalitions with other grassroots groups (MIWON 2)."

KIWA's mission is to "empower low wage immigrant workers and to develop a progressive constituency and leadership amongst low wage immigrant workers in Los Angeles that can join the struggle in solidarity with other underrepresented communities for social change and justice (www.kiwa.org)." KIWA's strong and continuous efforts have made a strong impact in the unfair treatment of immigrant workers in the restaurant industry. Here, we will look into the situation in the restaurant industry in regards to wages, abuse, and undocumented workers, the Restaurant Workers Justice Campaign, the accomplishments, and what is to come in the future.

A few minor setbacks

One important thing that we wanted to make note of was that members of the Korean community did not always favorably look upon KIWA. Before its organization was officially established, founders Roy Hong and Danny Park supported the 175 union workers who became unemployed after Koreana Hotel Co., Ltd. purchased the Wilshire Hyatt in Los Angeles. The Korean community saw this as an act of betrayal against the Korean union and its owners. Initially this was one of the situations that prevented KIWA from receiving positive reactions from the Koreans.

Another serious of events that brought about a loss of respect for KIWA was when its handling of sexual harassment incidents surrounding an ex-in-house attorney and three former staff organizers was deemed unacceptable and distastefully through the public’s eyes. Alyssa Kang, who was once a part of KIWA’s Jessica McClintock campaign contributed:

"No matter what you think about their politics, even if I believe in the issues they’re organizing around, if they’re not offering safe place for their own employees to work, what does that say? It’s hypocritical to work on immigrant rights and Thai garment worker issues, if you can’t deal with this kind of internal gender dynamic (John Lee, "Real Good Food at a Price," Gidra, Spring 1999, Volume 1, Issue 1: pg 18)."

Needless to say, women were able to look past these gender concerns within the KIWA organization, because eventually Korean women sought support in organizing against their unjust working conditions.

Working-class immigrants

Nearly half a million Korean immigrants live and work in the Los Angeles County. Forty-percent of the half-million work in Korean-owned small businesses in Koreatown. This is largely due to the language barriers, lack of jobs, and discrimination. The constant inflow of new immigrants from Korea has no knowledge of the U.S. labor laws and most often do not have immigration papers. Thus, employers know this and exploit them by making them a source of "cheap labor." Before KIWA stepped in, immigrant workers in Koreatown were paid sub-minimum wages with no workers' compensation, health insurance, overtime pay, or health and safety protection. Immigrant workers usually work 10-14 hours per day, six days per week for wages as low as $2.20 per hour. Many waitresses make $500 per month which is a breakdown of $1.31 per hour.

Women and Latino immigrant workers (including undocumented)

On top of not getting their correct wages, workers receive degrading and slave-like treatment, including verbal and physical mistreatment. Women were often sexually as well as physically harassed. Liz Sunwoo, who is an activist at KIWA, described the situation for women employees:

"Korean women, and women in general, who work in low wage jobs are very difficult. Not only do they receive a lot of verbal abuse, a lot of them receive physical abuse. Women were beaten by their employers because they said something wrong. Women have been sexually harassed by employers and customers. It is very difficult to be in that situation. A lot of these women feel trapped (Interview, February 22, 2002)."

To further illustrate many women often reported receiving discriminatory gender practices "imported" from Korean service sectors. In addition, it has been said that "Korean restaurant owners often prefer pretty, young faces to attract male customers and are turned down (Louie, 148)." Women are hired because of their young age and many are turned down if they appear to be older. In addition to sexual discrimination, there is also age discrimination. Lee Jung Hee disclosed of such abuse:

"A lot of the employers ask the waitresses to go out for a drink after work, stuff like that. If you don’t do it, they won’t think very well of you. Even while I’m working, employers will sometimes ask you to have a drink. Those kinds of things are very hard to tolerate, very hard to see. I’ve seen a lot of that around me. When I started working again, I applied to about four places. The first place I went to had a lot of customers who came to drink in the evening. The employer told me that because I look like a traditional housewife; I couldn’t really match or play-up the atmosphere the male customers who came at night wanted so I wasn’t fit for the job. That’s why I had to leave that job (Louie, 147)."

Women weren't the only workers that were exploited, Latino workers also faced discrimination. It is appalling to see the mentality of the employers and how they treat their employees. The mentality to treat employees like they're nothing is solely due to the fact that "about 85% of the Korean and Latino restaurant workers are undocumented. Their undocumented status provides the fuel that employers need to instill fear and intimidation in their workforce. Workers who stand up for their rights are fired without pay by their employer and often blacklisted (MIWON 3)." To cut costs and maximize profits, employers do not pay the right wages, treat their workers right, and fire them for no reason.

The restaurant campaign was the second major fight KIWA took on and it was the one that put KIWA on the map. The founders of KIWA, in general, conducted research and talked to workers to find out what the issues that were being faced in the restaurant industry. What they found was that the restaurant industry was the second exploited industry, but also the most profitable in Koreatown. They found out the workers were getting way below minimum wage and also a vast amount of workers experienced severe injuries (health and safety violations). Major cases came forward and told their stories. One disheartening story was that of Mrs. Jung Hee Lee. As revealed by Sunwoo, this is her story that led to the spur of the Restaurant campaign:

"I (Liz Sunwoo) was first introduced to Mrs. Lee because she had a huge injury at her workplace. The restaurant business is where 70% workers are Korean women between the ages of 30-50 years old. Korean food has a lot of side dishes and a lot of dishes like Ji Gae (very hot stew), and even the BBQ, we have these stone pots that are really heavy and have to carry all that on one tray. It doesn't help that employers wereleaving grease on the floor. So, what happens is Mrs. Lee was carrying a very hot Ji Gae in a stone pot and slipped on the grease, which was sitting on the floor all day, burned her body, and was unable to work. She came back and said ‘I can't pay for these medical bills and can't come to work.’ What the employer is supposed to do is pay workers' comp. He didn't and fired her (Interview, February 22, 2002)."

The reason why Mrs. Lee was not paid for workers' compensation is that up to "80% of the restaurants do not carry the required workers’ compensation insurance, and health and safety laws are routinely violated (MIWON 3)." Workers who are injured while working are often forced to pay, by the employer, their own medical bills and treatment.

After hearing cases like this one, KIWA organized Korean and Latino restaurant workers to form a group and to lead the Restaurant Workers

Justice Campaign. The campaign was mostly lead by the Korean women as well as Mrs. Lee. Sunwoo mentioned, "A lot of the leadership came from the Korean women and they are the ones that really lead the campaign (Interview, February 22, 2002)." The Restaurant Workers Campaign began in 1996 as a response to exploitation and inhumane treatment of workers in the Koreatown restaurant industry. The campaign's goals included (1) a demand for an industry-wide reform that included raising sub-minimum wages; (2) raising substandard working conditions; (3) gaining a strong voice for the workers in the workplace and in the community. In essence, the campaign goals were to improve basic working conditions while empowering the 2,000 Korean and Latino workers in the industry to stand up for their rights.

The campaign sought to improve conditions as an industry wide basis instead of individual businesses. When KIWA's campaign began, approximately 90% of restaurant workers did not have workers' compensation insurance, even though it is required by law. The strategies that were conducted were, first, doing an intake and finding out the situation at the restaurants through interviewing the workers. The staff at KIWA then wrote the employer a letter informing them what injustice they are doing to their employee. Then try to make the employee and employers meet face to face and try to reconcile. If that doesn't work, then the second strategy would come into use: try to get the Korean women and Latinos in one room to organize and think of realistic goals for themselves. This eventually leads to the third strategy which would be: Fighting back through means of protesting, letters to the employers, hunger strikes, picketing, boycotting, etc…. Liz pointed out that these workers aren't fighting about their right pay. "It's not just about a money issue, but a respect and dignity issue."

The campaign has been very successful and evidence for this is found in a 1999 study conducted in the Korean restaurant industry; workers reported augmenting improvements in hourly wages, time cards, and knowledge of labor laws and workers' right from two years ago. In terms of wages, there have been improvements with only 34.3% reported earnings at or above the minimum wage in 1997, but almost 61.7% received legal wages two years later. Employers are providing at least minimum pay with 8-hour work days. Also, nearly seventy-percent of employers are providing workers compensation to their employees. Sunwoo pointed out that through the campaign, 80% of the workers know their rights. With that statistic, KIWA knew they made a big impact on the community.

That's not all, within the last year there has been a general change in attitude among many of the employers. Employers are much more cautious when dealing with their employees. Verbal and physical abuse, which was an everyday occurrence, has declined greatly. Not only was this campaign successful within the industry, but also in the community. The community, which rejected KIWA's good work, is now acknowledging that workers’ rights are important and should be on check. Even though the working conditions have gotten a lot better, there's still more that can be done.

Even though the Restaurant Worker's Campaign has won many battles, there are many more obstacles that are needed to overcome in the present as well as the future. To keep the fight going KIWA organized RWAK (the Restaurant Workers Association of Koreatown), have yearly minimum wage campaigns, enforce the current labor laws, and help workers with their documentation issues.

As mentioned above, KIWA organized RWAK, which emerged from the Korean Workers Justice Campaign. RWAK represents and empowers workers and keeps the restaurant industry accountable in the long term. The mission of RWAK "is to be an independent organization that fights to improve the working conditions of workers from human dignity and to unite all workers to help themselves and their co-workers. In accordance, the association will organize workers, educate and organize members, fight against bad working conditions, organize support groups, promote the well being of members, and recruit and maintain fund for the association (www.kiwa.org)." Every year KIWA runs the minimum wage campaign and the main objective is to educate workers on the U.S. labor laws and the current minimum wage. KIWA wants to target the recent immigrants because they are the ones that aren't too familiar with the laws. The main message KIWA wants to get out to them is even though they are undocumented, they are still covered by the law, and can stand up for themselves.

KIWA also is trying hard to enforce the laws and pound it in the heads of the employers. The labor laws are substantial, but the enforcement is light, especially in Koreatown. The next thing KIWA tries to do is help the immigrant workers with their documentation issues. Sunwoo strongly believes that education is the main emphasis is the long run:

"The restaurant business is volatile and will come and go. But, the workers will move from one restaurant to the other. The worker with the education and knowledge will be the ones who can educate others have others stand up for their rights. As you can see, education is contagious. Much of the fighting has been done, now it's time to educate the new incoming workers on the U.S. labor laws and the knowledge of their rights and wages (Interview, February 22, 2002)."

KIWA has done a remarkable job in aiding the immigrant workers in their fight for justice and equal rights. The legacy of the "shared (grassroots) leadership" was the essential part of the whole campaign. Workers from different ethnic backgrounds had to come together and fight for their rights. This was a community effort, not an individual effort. The fight for the immigrant workers' right was a collective force in order to voice opinion and stand up for their rights. The community rejected the whole notion and saw it as a display of dirty laundry for the public to see. This campaign made changes in the community by paving the way for new immigrants, getting their voices heard, creating a more pleasant and fair working environment, and getting acknowledgement from the community about how important worker's rights are. More than the issue on collecting their correct hours of wages the immigrant workers just want to be treated with respect and dignity, which is priceless. (For a more detailed report on the change in impact KIWA has made, please refer to the "Survey of working conditions in Koreatown Restaurants" at www.kiwa.org.)

Do any of these restaurants sound familiar?

When considering a place to eat in the Koreatown and its surrounding cities, some of us are not familiar with its political history (if any). Here is a listing of some restaurants where employees have reported claims against their unjust working conditions:

Busan Sushi Bar
201 N. Western Ave.
Los Angeles, CA. 90004

Chinese Mandarin House
(inside the Koreatown Plaza food court)
928 S. Western Ave., #147
Los Angeles, CA. 90006

Golf Sushi Bar
239 S. Vermont Ave.
Los Angeles, CA. 90004

Hae Woon Dae Galbi
946 S. Vermont Ave.
Los Angeles, CA. 90004

Hwa Gae Jang Toh
543 S. Western Ave., Suite E
Los Angeles, CA. 90020

Hwang Ga Nae
15410 S. Western Ave.
Gardena, CA. 90249

Hyundae Health Center (Sauna)
3625 W. 6th Street
Los Angeles, CA. 90020

Korean Soup Restaurant
3524 W. 8th Street
Los Angeles, CA. 90005

Marronier
3479 W. 6th Street, #8B
Los Angeles, CA. 90005

Moa Moa
3900 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA. 90010

Nam Dae Moon Jip
3470 W. 6th, #2
Los Angeles, CA. 90004

Oxford Palace
745 S. Oxford Ave.
Los Angeles, CA. 90006

Saritgol
3189 W. Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA. 90006

Secret Garden BBQ
1925 W. Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA. 90006

Shin Sa Myun Ok
3470 W. 6th Street, #6
Los Angeles, CA. 90006

Song Do Seafood
377 N. Western Ave.
Los Angeles, CA. 90004

Soot Bull Jeep
3136 W. 8th Street
Los Angeles, CA. 90005

Todai Sushi
20401 Ventura Blvd.
Woodland Hills, CA. 91364

Tonkatsu House
(in the Koreatown Plaza food court)
928 S. Western Ave., #127
Los Angeles, CA. 90006

The Koreatown Restaurant Workers Campaign history

Throughout this quarter, our committee was able to visit and obtain background research on four particular restaurants in Koreatown that have previously had publicized political activity. Below are the descriptions of such accounts.

Elephant Snack

Elephant Snack is located at 901 S. Western Avenue #101 in Koreatown. Eight of its former employees sued the restaurant for its non-compliance with California wage laws. This restaurant was found to have been denying workers their correct incomes and was practicing illegal trade practices such as blacklisting. The Korean owners denied their workers compensation for these practices and had to endure a lengthy campaign that was organized by members of the community and the workers of the restaurant. After a year of deliberation and picketing in front of the restaurant by students, workers and supporters, a settlement was made on March 20th, 2001, for unpaid wages and penalties.

In the settlement, the employer agreed to pay compensation (the exact amount was not mentioned) and agreed to participate in procedures to ensure compliance with labor laws. In detail, the employer agreed to allow KIWA and MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) monitor payroll practices and present labor law seminars for the workers at Elephant Snack Bar. ("Employees Settle Wage Claims with K-Town Restaurant," Korea Times, April 6, 2001.)

Pho LA

Pho LA is located on 3470 W. 6TH Street #5 in Koreatown. It is right next to many prominent businesses such as the Equitable Building, the Wilshire Financial Towers, and many other shops. Opened during the period of fashionable food trends, the owners decided to create a restaurant that was very profitable. However, workers were denied their income, often times waiting many more weeks to receive their pay or none at all. Efforts have been made to rally against this injustice to the immigrant workers and pickets by supporters have been conducted. Improved conditions are being worked on and supporters believe that the outcome will be favorable (www.latimes.com, www.kiwa.com, www.indymedia.org).

Bak Hwa Jung Restaurant

Having heard of the organization through leaflets distributed by KIWA organizers, three Latino workers from Bak Hwa Jung Restaurant approached KIWA with back wage claims in June 1998. One worker had worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for three years, earning $1000 a month (or $2.43 an hour). He was terminated in June 1998. The second worker was terminated not long after afterwards.
With KIWA's help, the three workers initiated a campaign for back wages, beginning with a direct visit and demand for wages against their employer. When the employer responded by threatening to report the two workers to INS, KIWA and the workers decided that a more public fight was needed to educate the community about the basic human rights of all immigrant workers, regardless of immigration status.

The four-and-a-half-month consumer boycott, culminating in daily pickets by community supporters, succeeded when the restaurant’s representative Hyun Sook Park agreed to pay back wages for three workers. This triumph sent a strong message of multicultural unity between Latino and Korean workers in the Koreatown restaurant campaign. Restaurant worker Jorge Castillo revealed, "The boycott was difficult (financially) on myself and my family. However I am satisfied with the result. This struggle showed that employers must not use race to intimidate and take advantage of the workers ("Victory at Baek Hwa Jung," Koreatown Restaurant Workers Justice Campaign, January 1999)."

Chosun Galbi

Chosun Galbi restaurant is located on 1040 S. Western Avenue in Koreatown. The owners of this establishment were practicing illegal trade practices of blacklisting and the suppression of a worker’s basic rights. Being the biggest and most modern of the four restaurants, the owners have no need to be practicing such unfair actions. However, the head cook, Mr. Park, was fired because he refused to sign documents that would incriminate him in paying the employer’s payroll taxes. Such abuse of power was not to be taken lightly, and members of the community, along with KIWA, picketed the restaurant on a daily basis, causing much pressure on the owners.

It is also important to note that in this conflict, Cho Sun Galbi had support from the Korean Restaurant Owners Association (KROA) who activated a Korean American media blackout of the boycott and campaign. KROA was able to follow through with that tactic because the local Korean language media rely heavily on the advertising support from Koreatown restaurants. In addition, Cho Sun Galbi tried retaliating legally filing a lawsuit against KIWA.

After six months of deliberation, with gathered signatures and a nine-day hunger strike over the Christmas holidays, this campaign proved to be successful. This particular campaign was unique in that such a hunger strike had never been instigated before in Koreatown. This strategy challenged the "business as usual" attitude that many of the restaurant workers hold, thinking that they, the employer, have the power to oppress and fire workers who speak out against their working conditions.

In the settlement, the owners agreed to pay back wages and abide by the basic labor laws of California. They also agreed to give Mr. Park his job back. This campaign is noted as one of the biggest successes the community and community-based organizations have had in the restaurant campaign for immigrant workers rights. (Paul Lee, "KIWA settles Cho Sun Galbi," KIWA News, Volume 6, Summer 1998.)

These restaurants are but a few of the ones that are violating immigrant workers’ rights. The people that are boycotting and demonstrating said it was necessary in light of recent Department of Labor sweeps that found 33 of 35 Koreatown restaurants in violation of wage or overtime laws, with about 200 workers owed roughly $95,000 in back wages.

Interviews with some members of the Restaurant Workers Association of Koreatown (RWAK)

On February 27, 2002, we attended a RWAK meeting. RWAK has its weekly meetings in Spanish on Wednesday mornings at 8:30 a.m. at the KIWA office. The meeting gave us an opportunity to put real faces and voices to the struggle facing our communities today in 2002.  There were about 30 workers not only from restaurants but also from markets who attended the meeting.  It was aimed to educate workers of their wages and inalienable rights.  

Roman Vargas, who once was also a restaurant worker that was exploited, now is a pillar of strength for others to utilize as the head of RWAK. He has the empathy and is fueled with the desire and commitment to change conditions in the workplace.  The meeting soon erupted into a forum where workers discussed issues and conditions they were facing.  The meeting was a place where fellow workers find strength, support, and inspiration, desire, and commitment to continue their struggle for justice.  Towards the end of the meeting we noticed a worker who brought his daughter. It was touching to see a father bring his child to a meeting to subject her to the grim reality facing workers, even her father.  In conclusion the meeting was not only used to educate workers of their rights and wages, but more importantly it became a place where workers could find compassion, comfort and relief.   

All interviews were conducted in Spanish and were translated into English thereafter.

Interview A:

Q: How are you?

A: Very good, thanks.

Q: Your name?

A: Roman Vargas.

Q: What’s your position on the Koreatown Restaurant Workers Association?

A: I’m the head of the association for Korean Restaurant Workers.

Q: What do you do as the head leader?

A: My position is giving seminars to the workers of the restaurants so they know their rights as workers.

Q: Why did you start working here"?

A: Because when I came here I also worked 12 hours for 500 dollars in Korean restaurants. And the work exploitation was very strong so we had to try to avoid exploitation. Only by organizing ourselves, can we avoid exploitation.

Q: What do you want in the future?

A: We want our own organization and workers be paid the just wage and they pay us what’s just.

Interview B:

Q: What’s your name?

A: Mario.

Q: Where do you work?

A: I work in the California Market.

Q: What are the conditions like where you work?

A: They are not good.

Q: Why?

A: They make us sign contracts that hurt us.

Q: When you came from Mexico what did you think work would be like?

A: I came here 11 years ago, and I thought I was going to have a better life but it hasn’t been like that.

Q: What do you want in the future?

A: To legalize ourselves, to have better working conditions, and better opportunities for all of us.

Interview C:

Q: What is your name?

A: Angel.

Q: Where do you work?

A: A Korean restaurant.

Q: What are the working conditions like?

A: They are not good. They treat us differently. They treat Latinos worse than Koreans.

Q: When did you come from Mexico and what did you think work conditions would be like?

A: I came here 4 years ago and thought it would be different and that they would treat us the same.

Q: What do you want in the future?

A: That they treat us the same and that the treatment is just.

Interview D:

Q: What is your name?

A: Ruben.

Q: Where do you work?

A: I work in a Korean restaurant.

Q: What are the conditions like?

A: They are very bad. For example, the Koreans would be reading the newspaper and we’ll be doing all the work. So it’s different.

Q: When you came from Mexico how did you think the working conditions would be like?

A: I thought it was going to be a lot different. The truth is there is a lot of technology here compared to my country and I came with a different mentality. I came to try modernity (a modern life). I have some background education, so I thought it was going to be a lot different.

Q: What do you want in the future?

A: I want the laws to be changed. I want them to treat us differently. If Koreans are reading newspapers, why can’t we? If they are listening to music, why can’t we?

Although currently there is not a particular restaurant to campaign, as Vargas mentioned above, his main role is to educate these immigrant workers to ensure that they are working under fair labor conditions. All three of the Latino workers expressed that they wanted justice and just wages. It is also important to note that some of these immigrant workers come from Mexico with educated backgrounds, but here in the United States, their credentials don’t equate to their labor wages they receive. In addition, these three Latino workers indicate that discrimination in the Korean-owned restaurant industry is still prevalent. Ruben questioned, "If Koreans are reading newspapers, why can’t we? If they are listening to music, why can’t we?"

Conclusion

As real as the feedback from the interviews above indicate, labor exploitation is still a significant struggle in the Koreatown community. Because of expanding globalization, every year thousands of vulnerable, undocumented immigrants come to the restaurant industry seeking means to support themselves and their families financially. On a positive note, KIWA’s efforts to promote awareness of California labor laws have impacted the working community, but there is still more to be done and still more workers to reach. At least with the spread of more information, the knowledge can bind the workers to building empowerment and unity, whether he/she is Korean, Latino/a, or of any other ethnicity.

We feel that educating the employers and employees about the California Labor laws and promoting ethnic ties rather than dividers would be an effective medium towards enhancing the working dynamics within the Koreatown area. The spread of this mechanism has the potential to isolate such instances and encourage better working conditions for the employees. We feel that the Koreatown community and the Asian American community have not been fully conscious or supportive of these labor struggles. As much as we can imagine the hardships that a small business owner may face, we do not feel that people have been sympathetic enough to the efforts that their employees put in to run the business. Patrons of Koreatown’s restaurants are ignorant and they need to see what has been hidden from them.

Throughout our research, we’ve come to the realization that although ethnicity was once used as a class and divider, today as seen through the restaurant workers association, it is no longer a barrier but more of an essential element towards building collectivity. We also have noticed that the organizing has been passed from Korean women workers in the past to Latino male workers in the present. Across the ethnic groups, language is shared and understood by all in the Koreatown community.

In addition, gender relations between the male employer and female employee have changed for the better. In Korean tradition, the mentality of male domination lead to the mistreatment of women, but today gender dynamics have improved to promote better working conditions. Regardless of what industry or working class, laborers deserve fair conditions and compensation. Above all, the restaurant workers indicated that they wanted to be treated with respect and dignity.

Our research has outlined the historical timelines of the restaurant workers organizing and provides a sense of hope that working conditions will continue to be sought for improvements, socially, financially, physically, and mentally. As UCLA students, we are aware that the movements cannot be carried without support and knowledge first and foremost. Since we have that knowledge, it is our duty to do what we can to apply our awareness in action in our normal everyday lives.

This research has brought us to have a changing attitude toward the struggles that the lower working class face. Knowing that the undocumented workers have become empowered enough to speak up against their employer bounds us to a sense of respect for their courage. More importantly, we have come to respect their stands against discrimination. Now whenever we go into a Koreatown restaurant, all of us can better acknowledge their struggles with respect. Upon the beginning of our research, we as Asian Americans were not fully aware of the oppression that these Latino laborers were facing. More so, we did not fully become conscious until now that we are a part of the group that was/is doing the oppressing.

This research project has allowed us to broaden our scope of understanding within this struggle. However, sadly we realize that many other members of the Asian American communities alike are not aware of the injustices within the Koreatown restaurant industry (or any other profit-making enterprise): its harmful working conditions, unjust payroll practices, and discriminatory environment. After having heard these voices of struggle, we react more sensitively to this cause and have come to better appreciate the interethnic unity that has been formed as a result. We hope that our research becomes an essential element towards paving the path towards social change.


Works cited

"Employees Settle Wage Claim With K-Town Restaurant," Korea Times. 6 April 2001.

Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates. KIWA. 12 Feb 2002. www.kiwa.org

Lee, John, "Real Good Food at a Price," Gidra. Spring 1999, Volume 1, Issue 1.

Lee, Paul, "KIWA Settles Cho Sun Galbi," KIWA News. Volume 6, Summer 1998.

Louie, Miriam Ching Yoon, Sweatshop Warriors. Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press, 2001.

Multi-Ethnic Immigrant Workers Organizing Network. MIWON Immigrant Workers. Handout.

Multi-Ethnic Immigrant Workers Organizing Network. MIWON. Handout.

Sunwoo, Liz. Activist/Organizer, Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates (KIWA). Personal Interview. 22 Feb. 2002.

"Victory at Baek Hwa Jung," Koreatown Restaurant Workers Justice Campaign. January 1999.

WEBSITES

www.indymedia.org

www.latimes.com

www.kiwa.org

www.asianweek.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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