A Korean BBQ restaurant now has a union. Supermarkets may be next

At Genwa Korean barbecue restaurant, a plate of beef short ribs aka galbi costs about $75.

Kylie Jenner was spotted there having lunch with her then-boyfriend Tyga.

But workers say that until a year or two ago, they weren’t paid for all the hours worked, weren’t given all the tips they earned and weren’t allowed to rest.

Last year, they formed a union. And last month, they signed a contract that includes a minimum wage of at least $20 an hour and health care reimbursement, as well as seniority rights.

Genwa, which has two locations in Los Angeles and one in Beverly Hills, is the first Korean barbecue restaurant in the country to merge, according to organizers.

About 50 Genwa employees join a union movement that is expanding across the country, from hundreds of Starbucks stores to an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island. Many workers are demanding better treatment at a time when low-wage earners are struggling to pay their bills and the gap between rich and poor continues to widen.

Labor experts and Asian-American community leaders say Genwa could be a model for organizing immigrant workers who may be unaware of their rights, afraid to speak up, or hindered by language and cultural barriers.

Emboldened by the Genwa win, organizers are trying to convince workers at other Korean businesses, including supermarket chain Hannam, that forming a union is in their best interests. surname.

In Koreatown, aligning support for a union can be especially difficult. Many businesses have Asian and Latino employees with different native languages, who are sometimes treated differently by their employers.

But “when workers can actually show it can be done, it encourages other workers to take action,” said Kent Wong, Director of the UCLA Labor Center.

When Jenny Kim started working at Genwa in Mid-Wilshire in February 2016, the restaurant was like a family. Like her, the owner and many of her co-workers are Korean immigrants.

The smell of grilled meat – galbi and chadolbagi, or thinly sliced ​​beef brisket – reminded her of the home she left behind in Korea.

But as she worked as a waitress, ordering a range of banchan – side dishes – from kimchi to fish cakes and flipping kebabs at a customer’s table, she began to realize that she are short of wages and tips.

With less hours on her payslip than she actually worked, she’s essentially earning less than minimum wage. After hours on her feet balancing a plate of meat, she had no rest.

She calculates that she is owed nearly $50,000 in wages and fines.

When she brought up the issue, her manager told her to keep quiet about it, Kim said.

Genwa has denied allegations by Kim and other workers, alleging that all problems were due to a paperwork error.

A survey of low-wage Asian and Latino workers in California released last year, including restaurant workers, found the majority were paid $15 an hour or less. Nearly 20% earn less than $12 an hour — the state’s minimum wage for smaller employers in 2020, when workers surveyed.

Sometimes, immigrant employers can put pressure on other immigrants to resolve internal disputes, experts say.

“They have a kinship relationship between workers and employers, which often reduces their ability to voice grievances,” said Chanchanit Martorell, executive director of the Center for Community Development Thailand. and reporting employee abuse.

Steven Chung, one of Genwa’s longest-serving employees, is the floor manager as more and more workers come to him about their wages being short.

The number of hours on his own check, he said, was less than he actually worked.

When he complained to Jeannie Kwon, the owner who hired him, she told him to go on vacation, he said.

Kwon soon fired him, Chung said.

Chung and Kim were among the Genwa workers who contacted the Koreatown Migrant Workers Union in late 2017. They weren’t trying to form a union – they just wanted to be paid for their work.

KIWA has a long history of advocating for workers in Koreatown. CEO Alexandra Suh keeps a photo of workers having a picnic in front of the famous Korean barbecue restaurant Chosun Galbee in the late 1990s.

In the early 2000s, KIWA secured living wage agreements at many grocery stores in Koreatown. But those treaties have broken down since then, and KIWA has never successfully organized a union.

Owners sometimes try to divide workers by ethnic lines, as happened during an unsuccessful KIWA consolidation campaign at Assi Market in 2002.

As at many Korean-owned restaurants, Korean immigrants in Genwa are often waiters and waitresses, while Latinos are lower-paid chefs and dishwashers.

Revenue at restaurants can also be a hindrance to organization.

By 2019, when José-Roberto Hernández became the organization director at KIWA, many of the workers on the original Genwa team, including Chung and Kim, had left the restaurant.

Newer workers were apprehensive about KIWA and unionizing. Some felt the organizers’ tactics, such as selling retail tickets in front of restaurants and owners’ homes, were too aggressive.

Just when the organization was gaining momentum, the pandemic hit, forcing the restaurant to temporarily close and lay off almost all workers.

Meanwhile, in March 2020, the California Labor Commissioner’s Office fined Genwa $2.1 million for wage theft and labor law violations involving more than 300 workers.

A check of payroll shows that they often work around the clock and do not get rest or food. The audit found that nearly half were not paid minimum wage and more than half were denied overtime pay.

Among the union organizers were former Genwa workers. After the restaurant reopened, they helped convince enough former colleagues — even those satisfied with their jobs — that the union would give workers a voice.

The workers also debated the merits of unions among themselves, sometimes a mix of Spanish and Korean.

Last July, the majority of them filed a union authorization card. The owners have voluntarily recognized the union, known as the California Retail & Restaurant Workers Union.

Genwa’s owner, Jay B. Kwon, has apologized to any workers who “felt they weren’t treated fairly” in the past.

“We now look forward to the opportunity to partner with the California Union of Restaurant and Retail Workers to model dignity, fairness, respect, quality of work, and standards of service and food excellence. eat,” Kwon said in a statement released after he and the union approved the first contract last month. “I hope that’s a model for restaurants across the industry.”

In a separate statement sent to Korean-language media and The Times, Kwon said Genwa had settled the fine with the state for “a lower amount.”

Kwon also said the pandemic has changed the way he runs his restaurants and has made it more important to retain employees and provide a stable work environment. Unions can help fulfill the restaurant’s long-term goals, he said.

Yongho Kim owns Arado Japanese Cuisine in Koreatown and is president of the Korean American Food Industry Association, which represents restaurant owners.

Kim said Genwa might not be typical of most restaurants, given its relatively large size and high-end clientele. He doesn’t foresee unions taking over at many of the smaller mom and pop restaurants in Koreatown, but he admits that some restaurant owners need an education in labor law.

Martorell of the Center for Community Development Thailand says organizing workers in Asian-American communities remains a challenge.

But at Hannam Chain, organizational momentum may be strengthening, with employees recently submitting a request to the company to discuss working conditions, KIWA’s Hernandez said.

“The workers at Hannam Chain LA have made it one of the most successful and recognized Korean grocery stores in the United States,” State Senator María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), wrote in a letter sent to the owners in March. . “They deserve more than that.”

Rebecca Nathan, who helped organize her former colleagues after she left Genwa, is pleased with the terms of her new contract that require workers and management to attend sexual harassment training.

Nathan, 28, says that when she worked as a bartender at a restaurant, her manager kicked her out for being weird. That led to a flurry of sexually harassing comments from her co-workers, with little opposition or discipline from her superiors, she said. Kwon said he didn’t know about the incident until Nathan spoke out in public.

Nathan, who is of Korean descent and started working there after a year teaching English in Korea, left in 2019 and is now a case manager at Planned Parenthood.

“What I hope from it is that it can be an example,” says Nathan. “People with national power and appeal to the media and the public – we don’t have any of that.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-07-19/korean-bbq-restaurant-now-has-a-union-supermarkets-may-be-next A Korean BBQ restaurant now has a union. Supermarkets may be next

Edmund DeMarche

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