Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey recently slapped five Valley restaurants with about $17,000 in penalties for paying workers less than minimum wage, violating the state’s Earned Sick Time law and other violations of regulations meant to keep workers from financial exploitation.
It’s about time. But is it enough?
The sanctions came a year after the Daily Hampshire Gazette published “Under the Table,” an investigation into the underground economy that has sketchy job bureaus in New York City’s Chinatown supply undocumented immigrant workers to restaurants that pay them less than the minimum wage, require them to work 72-hour weeks and put them up in company housing that ranges from spacious to cockroach-riddled.
While the pipeline originates in New York, it’s not just a big city scandal. The Gazette series — produced by former Advocate staff writer Amanda Drane and Gazette Photo Editor Carol Lollis — found that at least seven Asian restaurants in the Pioneer Valley appeared to be guilty of the mistreating immigrant workers who felt they had no option but to go along.
At this point, the Attorney General’s office has sanctioned five of the eateries. “Too often, restaurant industry workers have their wages stolen by employers,” Healey declared. “No worker should be a victim of unfair and exploitative practices and we want all workers to know they should come forward if they have complaints or questions about their rights.”
Healey’s action is a step in the right direction, but we have to ask: Why did it take so long for law enforcement officials to act on facts clearly laid out in Drane’s reporting? And will they stop at the restaurants identified by the journalists or broaden their inquiry to examine the labor practices of other restaurants, given that workers say the abuse is widespread among restaurants linked to the Chinatown agencies?
And here’s another question, one that might make self-described progressives in the Happy Valley unhappy: Where is the citizen outrage?
In the spring of 2016, the Pioneer Valley Workers Center held a press conference to announce the results of a study it said showed widespread wage theft among Northampton restaurants. When pressed for specifics, though, neither the workers center nor most of the restaurant workers who came forward could demonstrate widespread abuse. There were, however, strong indications of abuse at a more limited group of Asian restaurants.
With help from workers center volunteer and former sushi chef Lin Geng, Drane and Lollis traced the trail from Chinatown to the Valley, working late nights and pushing through language barriers to get restaurant workers — and several owners — to document arduous work weeks with wages as low as $6.50 an hour (far less than the $10 hourly minimum, and forget about overtime or sick pay).
Imagine the public outcry if American workers were subjected to such treatment. Activists would fill the sidewalks, bearing signs and chanting for justice. Diners would stay away in droves, or show up to declare that they would spend their hard-earned money only if the hard-working employees got their fair share.
But what happened when news broke that immigrants from impoverished and repressive countries were suffering such treatment here? Um, nothing. It was just dining as usual.
I We can’t help but wonder if that silence, and the less-than-urgent official investigation, says something ugly about a community that floods the streets with righteous indignation on just about every cause. When it comes to the mistreatment of foreign-born workers, could we care less?