Workers at the Arcadia, California franchise of global soup dumpling brand Din Tai Fung. Photo by misocrazy (Flickr/Creative Commons).

Local news portal Alhambra Source summarized a World Journal (世界日報) article about illegal labor practices in California’s San Gabriel Valley ethnoburbs (now commonly known as “the 626″). The article focused on low wage jobs in the restaurant and massage industries, which employ many low-skilled men and women in the ethnic community.

Many massage parlors discriminate against women who do not meet their strict physical appearance requirements, and force masseuses to perform sexual favors for bosses and patrons. In the restaurant industry, workers are fired for no reason, or for issues that are not their fault:

The newspaper cites a restaurant owner who fired a waiter for stealing tips, but later found out that the customer took back some of the money. Another restaurant worker was fired for stealing food in the kitchen, but later the employer discovered it was mice that ate the food.

Despite the abuses, low wage workers feel that they are in no position to complain. Many are undocumented, something neither the original article nor the summary brings up. Even those who are legally present in the United States may not know where to turn for help, and may not have the skills or connections to move into jobs in the “mainstream” economy.

Ms. Liao, a woman looking for work at an Alhambra Chinese employment agency, says that jobs are hard to come by these days. Even if employers do not treat them fairly, she says, they must put up with mistreatment in order to survive.

Many of us love going to ethnic neighborhoods to eat out and for other goods and services. (In fact, there’s a whole subculture in California built around this kind of lifestyle.) In Western countries, food in immigrant neighborhoods tends to be cheaper than in your typical middle-class, majority-culture area. The New York Times Frugal Traveler follows this rule of thumb when he travels, as do I.

But what is the price of keeping prices low? How much do workers in these restaurants get paid? What kinds of protections do they have? These are some questions to think about next time  you eat in a cheap ethnic restaurant, especially in a country like the US with relatively weak labor laws.

  1. Wow–Arcadia is my hometown. Immigrant labor is always a hard issue to address. How do we institute legal protections for people we don’t recognize officially in our society? When it comes to immigrant labor, everyone wants to look the other way.

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