Monday, May 16, 2016

'Widespread' workplace abuse persists for Chinese restaurant workers

Chinese workers in Greater Toronto restaurants face “widespread and persistent” workplace abuse, including being routinely denied minimum wage, overtime pay and vacation pay, according to a new report.
The report to be released Monday finds that some 43 per cent of Chinese workers earned less than the minimum wage, currently set at $11.25. Over half of the respondents reported working more than 40 hours a week, but only 11 per cent of those eligible for overtime pay said they received it.
The majority of workers were also cheated out of their statutory entitlements, the report shows: 61 per cent said their employers denied them public holidays, and 57 per cent said they did not receive vacation pay.
“The experience of Chinese restaurant workers stands out as a powerful illustration of the atrocities suffered by some of the most vulnerable workers in our economy, as well as a demonstration of the complete failure of the Ontario government to act on its legal obligation to protect workers,” says the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic report called “Sweet & Sour: The Struggle of Chinese Restaurant-workers.”
Avvy Go, director of the clinic, said the findings were no different from a similar survey it did almost three decades ago.
“Unfortunately, nothing has changed in the last 30 years. Our clients come to us asking for help on the same issues over their employment rights. They are still paid half in cash, half by cheque, with a pay stub,” Go said in an interview.
“We are still banging our heads against the same system over and over again. We call the report Sweet & Sour because it is a good deal for restaurant patrons and owners but sour for the workers.”
The clinic undertook the survey to identify the scale of workplace exploitation experienced by Chinese workers, after being contacted by more than 600 clients with complaints about employment standards violations over the past three years.
Because the 184 workers surveyed were identified using the clinic’s client database and through other organizations working in the Chinese community, the report acknowledges that there is a “high probability” that participants with legal issues are over-represented in the data. The report argues that the consistency of responses across multiple workplaces suggest a general trend within the restaurant industry, rather than isolated incidents involving a “few bad apples.”
“At the end of the day, whether it is sheer bad luck that these 184 restaurant workers have all experienced some sort of workplace violations, or whether it is a pandemic that afflicts the entire restaurant industry, the voices of these workers deserve to be heard and their search for fair treatment deserve our support,” it says.
Toronto waitress Amy Yan said she wasn’t surprised by the report findings because that’s the reality she has faced since coming to Canada from China six years ago.
“You work 50 and 60 hours a week and make $8 an hour. They pay you in cash and say in paper you work only 30 hours a week. At other places, they pay you only $6 an hour, plus tips. Forty per cent of the tips go to the boss and the rest is shared by everyone else,” said Yan, who has worked at 10 different restaurants in North York and Scarborough.
“You have no choice because your English is not good. It’s worse if you work as a sale clerk in a Chinese mall. They pay you $8 an hour and you don’t get any tip. The province needs to send someone to apply for jobs at these places as undercover so they can find out the truth and punish these employers.”
Despite what the report calls “rampant” violations, most workers reported struggling to obtain justice through the Ministry of Labour’s complaints process.
Veteran chef Sam Yang said most workers are afraid to complain, fearing they would lose their jobs.
“A lot of the cooks are paid weekly and work anywhere between 54 and 61 hours. We know our labour rights, but your boss asks you to come in early and finish your job before you go, what do you do? You can’t say no,” said the 63-year-old, who came to Canada from China in 1986.
“I worked at a Caribbean restaurant. It closed down and owed me $1,500 in wages. I complained and it took the government more than six months to investigate it. At that point, the owner already disappeared. I still don’t have my money back.”
Around 20 per cent of those surveyed reported filing an employment standards complaint with the ministry, but 86 per cent said their claim took more than two years to complete. Less than a fifth of those who had won their case had received the money they were owed.
The Star has reported on the widespread issues workers face in recovering stolen wages and holding law-breaking employers to account.
The province is currently reviewing its employment and labour laws, with an eye to enacting reforms to tackle precarious work, and in recent years has committed to conducting more proactive workplace inspections – which data obtained by the Star show are significantly more effective than its current complaints process.
The study recommends the government expand investigation blitzes and eliminate the advance notice employers receive from the ministry before a proactive inspection.
Other suggestions include reinstating Ontario’s wage protection fund, which compensated victims of wage theft when employers claimed bankruptcy, increasing fines for confirmed violations, and making worker’s rights education a core component of newcomers’ language training programs.
Other workplace issues reported by Chinese workers:
  • 29: Percentage of workers who reported seeing injuries or other health and safety issues.
  • 58: Percentage of workers who said injuries were not reported to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.
  • 53: Percentage of workers who said they were paid in cash only or a combination of cash/cheque.
  • 41: Percentage of workers who reported not receiving payroll slips from their employer.
  • 11: Percentage of workers who said they had seen or heard of a ministry of labour inspection in their workplace.