Reporting on health condition of Chinese restaurant workers

Published on
February 20, 2013

Earlier this year, Department of Public Health closed down several hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants because of violations ranging from rodent activity to improper food storage to kitchen disrepair.

Also, U.S. Department of Labor recently helped more than 200 San Francisco restaurant workers retrieve nearly $500,000 in back pay and overtime owed to them by employers. In the most recent settlement, the owner of Dick Lee Pastry Inc. had to pay $89,000 to a worker for five years of back wages.

In January, Chronicle reported that City Attorney was going after at least 50 San Francisco restaurants for allegedly charging diners extra fees to cover the cost of city-mandated health care to workers and then pocketing much of the money. But in that list of alleged restaurants, there aren’t many Chinese restaurants.

From my own observation, it might not be because Chinese owners are exceptional in abiding the law this time, but many small restaurant owners in the Chinese community either hire part time workers or find other ways not to offer the health care that the employees need. Or they simply do not know about the ordinance.

All of these have grabbed my attention. With small kitchens and overtime work, workers especially in SF Chinatown, are always stuck in a small and crowded space. They are prone to experience work-related injuries such as burn injuries, back pain, and wrist pain, etc. Furthermore, many of them have to work overtime. With over 55 hours at work sometimes, these workers are deprived of time to do anything else except work. Even though there are many ordinances ensuring the rights of employers and employees, whether the information is adequately delivered to the monolingual Chinese community remains a question.

I am thus, very honored and happy to be able to join the health journalism fellowship that is coming up this week. As I participate in the fellowship and keep on pursuing this story, I plan to visit different restaurants kitchens across San Francisco bay area, and conduct interviews with restaurants workers and employers alike. I also want to find some hard facts regarding the actual numbers of work-related injuries by looking at inspections reports and documents filed by both officials and the workers, albeit I expect it would not be an easy task because many of the workers are undocumented and are unlikely to file any official reports.

Many of the accusations are against the restaurant owners. But to be fair and objective, I would try to speak to as many owners as possible to find out their sides of the story. First of all, Chinese food has always been perceived as cheap food. But if one really thinks about it, the ingredients for Chinese food are not much cheaper than other cuisines, such as Japanese, Thai, Italian… But because Chinese cuisine has been perceived this way for a long time, it is hard for many to buy Chinese food with a higher price. Thus, in the face of higher minimum wage requirement, rent increase, etc, the pressure that restaurant owners face are also undeniable.

Image by Waldo Jaquith via Flickr