Immigrant Restaurant Workers are Organizing

Dishwashers, servers and cooks recently won a $2.6 million settlement from the now-shuttered Kome Buffet.

When the now-shuttered Kome Japanese Seafood Buffet announced it was closing temporarily in 2019 for renovations, its workers found out through paper signs posted at the Daly City restaurant. According to Ah Ping, one of Kome Buffet’s former busboys, management never spoke to workers like him about what the sudden change would mean. 

“People couldn’t really tell how to arrange their lives,” Ping says through a translator. “‘Should I look for other work? What if I look for work and they call me back?’”

The closure — which eventually became permanent — resulted in 70 to 80 layoffs. It came about a year after the California Labor Commissioner’s Office cited Kome Buffet for failing to pay minimum wage, deserved tips, overtime and split shift premiums.

But recently, Ping and 132 dishwashers, servers and cooks won a $2.6 million settlement from the restaurant while working with the Chinese Progressive Association and Asian Law Caucus.

“It’s been such a slow process, and during that process, we were still working. We still had to go in every day and face our employers and the different pressures from management,” Ping says. The case first started when immigrant workers came forward with concerns in 2017. “The fact that we were able to get our wages and what we were owed by the law just made it worthwhile.” 

This victory is part of a “wave” of immigrant restaurant workers organizing for their rights. It’s not uncommon for employers to take advantage of immigrant employees — especially those with limited English proficiency — whether or not it be intentional. But in the past six years, CPA and ALC have noticed that more and more workers are coming forward about injustice in restaurants like Burma Superstar, La Taqueria, or Rangoon Ruby, especially as news about successful worker rights cases spread.

“Workers can still win,” says Winnie Kao, senior counsel at ALC. “They can still win if they come forward, if they stand together and they demand their rights.”

For example, workers at Yank Sing won $4 million in back pay after citing wage theft from the popular dim sum restaurant in 2014. The news encouraged a Kome Buffet worker to come forward about the inequitable conditions they themselves were experiencing, and soon, more and more of their colleagues joined the fight. 

“For low wage workers to actually confront wage theft and mistreatment at their workplace — especially for immigrant workers — there are a lot of risks to take,” says Joyce Lam, political director at CPA. “These workers really demonstrated the courage and the boldness together to fight for their dignity and safety in the workplace.”

It can be especially daunting if employers are known for intimidation tactics. According to Ping, the bosses at Kome Buffet would make threats to them, or try to single out individuals, leaving them “isolated and helpless” without the solidarity of their coworkers. “I wanted to have better treatment and respect for our coworkers,” Ping says. “They would treat us horribly for no reason.”

That was part of Ping’s motivation to join the case.

“The problem was never about us as workers,” Ping says. “It’s about the boss’ inability to honor your rights.” For other immigrant restaurant workers who might be scared about speaking up against unfair conditions, Ping has a few words of support. 

“Trust yourself and do not be afraid. You are in the right. Workers are in the right.”

Kome Japanese Seafood Buffet could not be reached for comment.

Grace Z. Li covers arts, culture and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com or follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.

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