04/25/2016 04:51 EDT | Updated 04/26/2017 05:12 EDT

Chinese Restaurant Workers Underpaid And Overworked, New Report Says

Alan Marsh via Getty Images
Chinatown, Toronto, Ontario

Chinese restaurant workers face low wages, long hours and often no overtime or vacation pay in the Greater Toronto Area, says a new report that documents their working conditions.

Sweet & Sour: The Struggle of Chinese Restaurant-Workers, released Monday, was prepared by the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic.

Avvy Go, a lawyer and the director of the clinic, told CBC's Metro Morning the clinic has heard the same story from hundreds of workers and has repeatedly tried to raise the issue with the Ontario Ministry of Labour. 

"They come to us with the same story and same complaints — no overtime pay, no minimum wage," she said.

"We are telling the same story over and over again to the ministry, and a lot of times still many workers don't get what they are owed," she said.

"We feel like it's time for us to document the stories, and validate their experiences and try get the government to pay more attention to this issue."

Go said the typical worker is male, older, an immigrant who lacks English-speaking skills and who can work 44 to 60 hours a week. Most don't get minimum wage, nor do they get overtime pay, vacation pay or holiday pay.

Many get paid half by cash, half by cheque, and the pay stub doesn't reflect actual hours of work, and there are no statutory deductions.

Go said the workers are often afraid of losing their jobs.

The report says it found "widespread and persistent violations" of workers' rights as guaranteed under Ontario's Employment Standards Act and Occupational Health and Safety Act. 

"A significant number of workers were paid less than minimum wage, and were routinely denied overtime pay, holiday pay and vacation pay," the report reads. 

"Many workers reported they were owed wages by employers, often in the range of several thousand dollars. Among those who lost their jobs, the majority were denied notice or pay in lieu of notice. Payroll violations were reported to be widespread and persistent.

"Not giving workers a payroll slip, under-reporting work hours in payroll slips and employer records, and not making statutory payments are among the typical payroll violations reported by workers."

The report found that 27 per cent of the workers interviewed worked 40 to 50 hours per week, 28 per cent worked 51 to 60 hours and four per cent worked over 60 hours, but only seven per cent reported receiving overtime pay.

Go said the report shows that Ontario's workplace legislation is not protecting vulnerable workers.

"As restaurant customers, we are getting good deals. But who is paying for this? It's the workers themselves," she said.

The sweet part is the low prices but the sour part is the working conditions, she said.

The report is based on interviews conducted between January 2016 and March 2016 with 184 Greater Toronto Area restaurant workers of Chinese descent.

Not all of the workers interviewed worked in Chinese restaurants, but all were restaurant workers. Some were working at more than one restaurant. The interviews tried to capture the experience at each restaurant as opposed to that of each worker.

The interviews, done in person and over the phone, were voluntary and confidential and conducted in either Cantonese or Mandarin.

The interviews were based on a questionnaire designed by the clinic to collect responses from Chinese workers who have worked in restaurants since 2013. The clinic went through its client database to identify workers who had contacted the clinic and had indicated they had worked in a restaurant between 2013 and 2015.

The workers were employed in such occupations as cook, waiter and general help. The majority of workers interviewed were working full–time.

Report follows study from 30 years ago

The clinic said the report follows a similar study done nearly 30 years ago by Toronto-based community organizations serving Chinese immigrants.

That study profiled about 100 Chinese workers in the restaurant industry in what was then the new Chinatown near Dundas Street and Spadina Avenue in Toronto. 

According to the clinic, Monday's report documents the extent to which rights under the Employment Standards Act are not being respected by employers. It also looks at the experience of workers with the Ministry of Labour's claim process under the legislation.

Janet Deline, spokeswoman for the ministry, said it is concerned about the issues raised in the report.

"We take these issues very seriously.  All workers deserve to be paid for the hours they work and have the right to be treated fairly by employers," she said.

"We're disappointed that some businesses feel they don't have to provide their employees with minimum statutory requirements. This is something we have been hearing about regularly and is something we are committed to addressing."

Deline said the ministry appointed two advisers last year to review employment standards and enforcement. That review is due to be complete later this year.

"It's important to remember that employers are prohibited from taking reprisal actions against employees for exercising their ESA rights," she said.

She said the ministry also conducts province-wide inspections and "blitzes" in sectors that have been identified through "third-party information." 

Restaurants not named to protect workers

The Ontario Chinese Restaurant and Food Service Association, based in Toronto, did not return calls for comment.

Some of the workers interviewed for the report said the province should publicly name and shame bad employers, but Go said the survey doesn't name the restaurants in part to protect the workers.

The clinic makes 16 recommendations, including that the ministry develop a strategy to address employment standards violations in the restaurant industry and that it issue a "green pass" to restaurants that comply with workplace legislation.

"The next time you patronize a restaurant, think about the people who prepare and cook your food, serve your meals and clean up," it reads.

"Let us all work together to make sure that they are treated with respect and in accordance with the law at their workplaces."

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