Low Wages, Lack Of Recourse
Korean workers in Flushing don’t get enough overtime pay, a new study said. Tribune Photo by Ira Cohen
By Michael Rehak
A recent study by a Flushing-based legal defense group says that Korean immigrant workers are underpaid, overworked and many of them just don’t know their rights.
“Forgotten Workers,” reported that some 15,000 Korean Americans are living below the poverty line in New York City. The study was released last week by the Asian American Legal Defense Fund
It tallied the working conditions of 184 immigrant workers, who anonymously provided what it’s like to make a living in places like garment manufacturers, dry cleaners, grocery stores, restaurants, nail salons and health spas.
More than a quarter of those who gave their feedback were in this country illegally.
Working an average of 55.4 hours per week, some 70 percent of those surveyed had no agreement for overtime pay.
• Almost two thirds knew nothing about workers’ compensation
• 24 percent said they would lose their jobs if they voiced grievances
• More than half of them said they knew of no official method of complaining.
• 5 percent didn’t understand English at all
• 57 percent said their knowledge of the language was limited.
• Their average age was 49.
• More than half of those who responded were males.
Work related injuries included needle punctures and headaches. Some 15 percent of the respondents sought medical care – a full 21 percent took time off because of the injuries. Some said they are owed back pay and almost all of those surveyed are not part of a union.
Despite the alarming results, many of these Korean workers live in fear of deportation.
Steven Choi, the director of the Korean Workers Project, said his organization exists to dispel that fear. Undocumented immigrants have the same rights as legal workers, he said.
“A lot of times, employers threaten that they’re going to report their employees to immigration authorities,” said Choi.
“We can’t say there is no possibility (that illegal workers could be deported), but we have never had an instance of that happening,” said Choi.
When labor issues are brought before a court, immigration status is not supposed to come into play, but “we can never rule that out,” Choi added.
The Asia-American Legal Defense Fund has been successful in many cases of winning overtime and compensatory wages for Asian employees through the court system.
In January the group obtained $17,000 in back wages for a Mr. Lee who had been working 13-hour days six or seven days a week for a nail salon in Flushing. .