Wage Theft and Unsafe Working Conditions Revealed in San Francisco's Chinatown

Chinatown in San Francisco

Half of restaurant workers in San Francisco's Chinatown earn less than minimum wage.

Almost 40 percent of San Francisco's 15.9 million annual tourists visit Chinatown, a neighborhood in the hub of the downtown district. Many are attracted by its plentiful restaurants — dining out ranks among the top three reasons tourists visit San Francisco.1 But despite the dollars spent by Chinatown's visitors, a UC Berkeley study reported that half of its restaurant workers are paid less than the minimum wage of $9.92 an hour. And, although over 40 percent work more than 40 hours a week, 75 percent fail to receive overtime wages and the majority never receive paid vacation.2

Minimum wage violations are costing Chinatown restaurant workers an estimated $8 million every year in lost wages, according to the Chinese Progressive Association.3

The study was led by principal investigator Meredith Minkler, professor of health and social behavior at UC Berkeley School of Public Health, along with partners at the Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP), UCSF, the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) plus dozens of restaurant workers and Chinatown residents. Project coordinator Pam Tau Lee, formerly of LOHP and a founder of the CPA, was "a lynchpin" according to Minkler, "in bringing together the community and the academic and health department partners."

The study's findings paint a startling picture of wage violations, unsafe work practices and poor living conditions. Researchers reported that almost half of the workers have been burned, and four out of 10 reported cuts at work in the past year. In addition to occupational hazards like intense heat and slippery floors, critical safety equipment like floor mats and first-aid were found lacking. Not surprisingly, 64 percent of workers failed to receive any job training.4

Though restaurant workers have among the highest rates of work-related illness and injury in the United States,5,6 few studies have been conducted on restaurant working conditions, and, until now, none have focused on San Francisco's Chinatown.7

Scientists used a community-based participatory research approach, which includes and empowers those most affected by the study in all stages of research and action. "The CBPR process allowed community, university, and health department partners to stay in close connection to understand the challenges in the community and improve the research process," said Charlotte Chang, a post-doctoral fellow from UC Berkeley who worked on the project as part of her doctoral work. "With the decline of the manufacturing sector, restaurants have been an important employer for immigrants who don't speak English, and whose education and skills don't easily translate from their country of origin. They feel vulnerable and don't want to raise a fuss."

Twenty-three restaurant workers were trained to interview over 400 of their peers at 71 Chinatown restaurants. Workers also helped shape the survey's content. For example, they added a question about a two-week, unpaid probationary period that some restaurant owners informally instituted in Chinatown," reported Chang. "It's a type of wage-theft we only learned about through their participation."

Among other findings, researchers discovered 95 percent of Chinatown's restaurant workers earn below a living wage. More than a third of these working-poor reside in a single-room occupancy hotel with an average of 80 square feet of living space, frequently with additional family members.8

The study empowered CPA and workers to set in motion a new coalition, the San Francisco Progressive Workers Alliance, to stop wage-theft violations across the city. With Board Supervisors Eric Mar and David Campos, they drafted the Wage-Theft Prevention Ordinance passed into law by Mayor Ed Lee on September 16, 2011. Key provisions of the ordinance include investigator access to worksites and records, the ability to cite employers immediately for violations and the doubling of penalties for employers who retaliate against workers.9

Study co-investigators included Robin Baker, director of Research to Practice (r2p) at UC Berkeley School of Public Health; Niklas Krause, professor and administrator, Environmental Health Sciences, UCLA; Rajv Bhatia, director of Occupational and Environmental Health for SFDPH and an assistant clinical professor of medicine at UCSF; and Pam Tau Lee, the former coordinator of public programs at LOHP who played a pivotal role in bringing together the community and university.

Others central to the project were Shaw San Liu, Alex Tom and Feiyi Chen from CPA; worker partners Hu Li Nong, Gan Lin, Li Li Shuang, Rong Wen Lan, Michelle Xiong and Zhu Bing Shu; Megan Gaydos, SPH '06, and Alvaro Morales from SFDPH; and Alicia Salvatore, SPH '09.

The study received funding from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, The California Endowment and the Occupational Health Internship Program.



5,7Minkler M, Lee PT, Tom A, Chang C, Morales A, Liu SS, Salvatore A, Baker R, Chen F, Bhatia R, Krause N. Using community-based participatory research to design and initiate a study on immigrant worker health and safety in San Francisco's Chinatown restaurants. Am J Ind Med. 2010 Apr;53(4):361-71.



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