Suit: Chinese buffet workers made $3.50, slept on dumpster mattresses
Mexican immigrants were paid as little as $3.50 an hour to work in Chinese buffet-style restaurants by employment agencies that forced them to sleep five to a room on dumpster mattresses in rat- and cockroach-infested apartments, a federal lawsuit filed Friday by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan alleges.
The owners of three agencies in Chicago's Chinatown and two restaurants — Hibachi Sushi Buffet in Cicero and Hibachi Grill Buffet in Elk Grove Village — took advantage of the "desperately poor" immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, the suit states.
The agencies charged the workers up to $220 in referral fees to take jobs in which they worked up to 84 hours a week without proper breaks and were paid less than half of the state's minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, the state alleged. The restaurants hid the workers in kitchen jobs where customers couldn't see them and charged them rent to live in "overcrowded, squalid conditions," the suit states.
Hibachi Grill Buffet allegedly housed 15 workers in a three-bedroom apartment that had just one bathroom and "no furniture aside from soiled mattresses, which employees had resorted to finding themselves from a nearby garage dumpster," the lawsuit alleges.
"It's very rare for people to come forward in these cases," Madigan said, given that the victims often enter the U.S. illegally.
But regardless of their immigration status, the victims are protected by state and federal law and "we don't want people's human rights to be abused," she said, adding that "underpayment of wages is a pervasive problem" that extends well beyond the allegations contained in this lawsuit.
Chicago agencies place exploited workers in restaurants across the Midwest, her office said.
The agencies named in the suit — Xing Ying Employment Agency, Jiao's Employment Agency and Chinatown Agencia De Empleo — allegedly advertised in Chinese-language newspapers and used word-of-mouth and calls to restaurants to offer "sincere" and "honest" Mexican workers for low wages.
Each agency charged would-be immigrant workers to sleep on the floor of their offices while jobs were found for them, according to the suit, which alleges violations of the Civil Rights Act, the Illinois Human Rights Act and the state's minimum wage law.
Jiao's distributed fliers in Spanish telling newly arrived immigrants that they could bring their suitcase with them to the agency, and Eva Zhang, who owned Chinatown Agencia De Empleo with Victor Torres, "uses racial slurs to refer to the workers she places" and "frequently yells at them and calls them names including 'lazy,' " the suit states.
Xing Ying, Chinatown Agencia and Hibachi Sushi Buffet could not immediately be reached for comment. No one who was available at Jiao's spoke English.
But Wayland Pinkham, the general manager of Hibachi Grill Buffet, said the suit caught him by surprise.
"We've dealt with all that — that's history," he said of the allegations. Asked about the alleged low wages and squalid living conditions of his staff, he said, "That's not true."
Andre Townsel, an attorney for Hibachi Grill Buffet, said he had not seen the suit and declined to comment.
Lisa Palumbo, an attorney focusing on immigrant rights at the Legal Assistance Foundation, which first alerted the attorney general's office to the case, said 25 to 30 exploited workers had come to her organization over the last couple of years with similar stories to those alleged in the suit.
Many contacted LAF after they were picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, including during a prior raid on Xing Ying's offices, she said.
"The vast majority were undocumented," giving employment agencies opportunity for exploitation, including placing workers in small towns as far afield as Montana and Idaho as well as other restaurants in Chicago.
When employers provide housing for low-wage workers in isolated spots, it's "a red flag," Palumbo said, adding that employees have been turfed out of such housing "with nothing but the shirts on their backs" and with nowhere else to go except to another potentially abusive situation.
"Our clients are fearful," she said.
Madigan said it's hard for consumers to know if they're eating at a restaurant that mistreats its kitchen staff. But illegally low wages can help some restaurants remain "so inexpensive."
And if staff are being abused, "You should not go to their restaurant," she said.