End abuse of Chinese food workers: Editorial
Ontario’s Ministry of Labour needs to beef up workplace inspections and end exploitation of Chinese restaurant workers.
With Ontario routinely failing vulnerable workers, it should come as no surprise that Chinese restaurant employees — among the most powerless of all — endure significant abuse.
To police exploitive workplaces the province relies heavily on people coming forward and filing complaints against unscrupulous bosses. But this approach is stacked against those facing language barriers, in dire fear of losing their job, people with precarious immigration status, and workers simply unaware of their rights under the law.
Thousands of Chinese workers labouring in restaurants throughout the Greater Toronto Area are precisely such a group. And a new report from the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic raises troubling concerns about the way these people are treated. The authors conclude that Ontario has utterly failed to act on its legal obligation to protect such workers.
In a key recommendation, the report urges the labour ministry to implement “an immediate and comprehensive inspection sweep of the restaurant industry, in particular of the Chinese restaurants in the GTA,” checking for violations of the Employment Standards Act. This seems far more likely to produce results and protect at-risk workers than simply waiting for complaints.
Titled “Sweet & Sour: The Struggle of Chinese Restaurant-Workers,” the 41-page report follows up on a survey of this group that was carried out almost 30 years ago. Sadly, it found that little has changed.
As reported by the Star’s Sara Mojtehedzadeh and Nicholas Keung, the authors surveyed 184 Chinese workers employed in the restaurant industry and found many earned less than the minimum wage, were denied overtime and vacation pay, and were subjected to “widespread and persistent” violation of their rights.
These abuses should be of concern to all Ontarians. The “sweet” in the report’s title refers to low prices enjoyed by restaurant patrons – bargains that are a big factor in the “sour” working conditions faced by many of those who cook and serve.
More than half of respondents reported working more than 40 hours a week, but only about one in 10 eligible for overtime pay actually received it. More than 60 per cent said they had to work through public holidays; 57 per cent said they were denied vacation pay; and 43 per cent earned less than Ontario’s minimum wage, currently $11.25 an hour.
The report isn’t based on a random survey of the Chinese community or of restaurant workers. Participants were recruited after having been in contact with a legal clinic or community agency, making them more likely to have experienced problems with their employer. But “the fact that so many of them report similar workplace experiences in not just one restaurant but in multiple restaurants suggests their stories are more reflective of a general trend,” concludes the report.
Furthermore, these findings are consistent with results from labour ministry inspection “blitzes” in sectors such as cleaning, security services, temporary work agencies and others employing vulnerable populations. Such crash inspections have repeatedly found widespread violations of the law, including excess work hours and companies denying their staff overtime, public holidays, vacation pay and back wages.
Chinese restaurant employees represent yet another group of workers let down by the system. The best way to protect them, and others in a similar plight, is to ramp up inspections and aggressively punish lawbreakers. A cheap meal for restaurant patrons should not be accompanied by a side-order of abuse.