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Low-Wage and Excluded Workers (Research)

Workers excluded from the labor rights legislation of the 1930s continue to have some of the worst pay rates and working conditions in the United States. Domestic workers, restaurant workers, taxi drivers and others face additional hurdles to organizing for economic justice because of the lack of legal protection. 

Phillipine Domestic Worker Rights. A primer on ILO CONVENTION No. 189

The Philippine Migrants Rights Watch (PMRW), with the support of the International Labour Organization’s ASEAN TRIANGLE project, has developed this educational booklet on Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers and RA 10361 otherwise known as Batas Kasambahay or Domestic Workers Law.

Often performed by family members, particularly women, domestic work is neither recognized as a formal component of the economy nor properly compensated. When done by hired labour, it is often not included in the labour laws of the country. Therefore, domestic workers do not enjoy the full protection of labour laws and they are often underpaid and asked to work extra time.

Behind Closed Doors: Working Conditions of California Household Workers


Household workers work in the private homes of their employers, performing tasks such as in-home child, patient, and elder care, housework, and cooking. Mujeres Unidas y Activas and the Day Labor Program Women’s Collective of La Raza Centro Legal came together to analyze and to strategize to improve the household work industry. Because there is no accurate data available about the number of household workers or information about their work conditions in California, these Bay Area organizations of low-income immigrant Latina women, many of whom are household workers, joined with the DataCenter to create a participatory research project to assess the industry. The research shows that household workers are primarily female immigrants. While supporting their employers’ homes and families, findings show household workers are working in substandard and often exploitative conditions, earning poverty wages too low to support their own families, and lacking access to basic health care.

Behind the Kitchen Door: A Multi-Site Study of the Restaurant Industry

Three new reports on the wages and working conditions of restaurant workers in Los Angeles, Miami and Washington, DC, as well as a National Executive Summary, were released today, Monday, February 14, at city-wide summits organized by Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United. These reports represent the most comprehensive studies ever conducted on these local restaurant industries, and were carried out with primary research support from university professors in all three cities. Nationwide and in each of the eight regions studied – New York, Chicago, Metro Detroit, Los Angeles, Maine, Miami, New Orleans, and Washington, DC - the restaurant industry is vibrant, resilient, and growing. The industry includes approximately 10.3 million workers and 557,520 food service and drinking places nationwide that make significant contributions to the country’s tourism, hospitality and entertainment sectors and to its economy as a whole. In 2007, the restaurant industry garnered over $515 billion in sales revenue. Perhaps the industry’s most important contribution to the nation’s economy is the millions of job opportunities and career options it provides. Nationally, restaurant employment growth outpaced that of the economy overall, particularly in the last decade. The restaurant industry has proven very robust even during the recent economic recession. Nationally, restaurant employment lost jobs at approximately 40% the rate that the overall economy lost jobs. Moreover, while the job recovery has been slow for the overall economy in 2010, the restaurant industry has recovered at a faster pace. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Current Employment Statistics, by the end of 2010 the restaurant industry had almost arrived at pre-recession employment numbers.

Check, Please! Restaurant Workers in Chinatown

Study Finds Significant Number of Workers Making Below Minimum Wage in SF Chinatown Restaurants Check Please!

Chinatown restaurant workers in conjunction with the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) and key research partners will release a study that exposes sweatshop conditions in restaurant workers in the popular tourist district Chinatown. This groundbreaking report examines health and working conditions in Chinatown restaurants, with over 400 workers interviewed by their peers, and lays out a vision for improving working conditions for a healthy Chinatown.

Key findings about the working conditions include:
• 1 out of 2 workers (50%) receive less than minimum wage
• 1 out of 5 workers (20%) work more than 60 hours a week
• Nearly half (48%) of workers have experienced burn injury
• Only 3% of workers have employer provided health care
• 95% do not receive a living wage
Through this important study, Check, Please! Health and Working Conditions in San Francisco Chinatown Restaurants, Chinatown workers are exposing the sweatshop working conditions that they must endure. While thousands of locals and tourists who enjoy Chinatown each day, workers are struggling to make ends meet and provide for their families. Many workers and their families are forced to live in Single Room Occupancy (SRO) spaces in Chinatown that average about 80 square feet.

This study finds that labor law violations hurt the local economy. Out of the estimated $70.8 million economy (taxable sales) in Chinatown’s restaurant industry, workers lose over $8 million dollars a year due to labor law violations. For a kitchen worker, this is approximately $6,000 per year and 30% of their annual income.

 “I worked in a Chinatown restaurant for seven years. It’s a hard job. I worked 6 days a week and got paid $900 a month, less than minimum wage. I stayed there because I have two kids and we all need to survive,” a worker stated.

Other studies show this is a national epidemic. The National Employment Law Project’s (NELP) 2010 national study Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers shows that wage theft and employment law violations in low wage labor markets are widespread in major US cities. Nationally, two thirds of low wage workers are denied full pay and 26% workers are paid below minimum wage.

Meredith Minkler DrPH, MPH, Professor of Public Health at UC Berkeley and Principal Investigator of the study said, "This is really a ground breaking study in its combination of sound scientific methods, high level community partnership, and the translation of findings in ways that can result in real change.  I know of no other study that has surveyed such a large population of low wage immigrant restaurant workers.  By also including detailed health department observations in over 100 Chinatown restaurants, this study produced dramatic findings about the health and safety of workers that calls out for redress."

“These finding are sobering and unacceptable. We understand these problems will take time to solve and we are committed to working with the community to develop solutions. With the economy as tough as it is, we cannot afford to ignore the dangers of rampant wage theft and a situation where 95% of workers earn below a living wage,“ observed SF Supervisor Eric Mar.

This study has already prompted action by SFDPH.  Director of Occupational and Environmental Health, Rajiv Bhatia, MD, MPH, confirmed, "The study findings demonstrate that unhealthy workplaces and labor violations are a hazard for worker and public health.  The health department cannot stand on the sidelines.  We've decided to use our regulatory tools to ensure that all businesses we permit are achieving a healthy standard for workers.  Although our pilot projects have highlighted opportunities for improved compliance, there is much much more to do."

After the results of the survey findings, workers discussed solutions to improve workers health and working conditions.

The report will outline the key recommendations:

§ Convene community stakeholder roundtables — After initiating dialogues with workers, community members, community leaders, and businesses in Chinatown, CPA will continue by convening community roundtable meetings the next couple of months.

§ Strengthen enforcement of labor and health and safety laws — San Francisco should shift enforcement strategy as other states like New York have taken steps to be proactive and strategic to hold employers accountable and partner with workers and community organizations to develop new enforcement mechanisms. San Francisco should move in this direction.

§ Significantly invest in Chinatown’s economic development – Chinatown needs diversified economic development with strong labor standards, small business stabilization and technical assistance. This needs to be accompanied with promoting responsible employers.

1.      Creation of a city guide to good businesses that pay living wage and provide health and safety protections
2.      City funded economic development projects should mandate living wage to support responsible businesses

§ Address high unemployment through job creation and training programs.

Chinatown worker Lin Gan stated, “Many people say we cannot change Chinatown, but I am proof that it is possible. These problems infect all of Chinatown—like the New On Sang poultry market where I worked for $6 an hour and wasn’t paid for over 2 months. Many people said, New On Sang will never pay you back--but by organizing and uniting with community, we got our back wages. In the same way, we believe that the community can come together to find solutions to the problems in Chinatown restaurant industries.

Check, Please! was funded by the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOHS), The California Endowment and The California Wellness Foundation. The research was designed and conducted by restaurant workers in partnership with researchers from UC Berkeley and UCSF San Francisco, UC Berkeley Labor Occupational Health Program, and the San Francisco Department of Public Health, with writing support from the DataCenter. The full report and executive summary will be available online at

Chinese Progressive Association educates and organizes the low income and working-class immigrant Chinese community in San Francisco. Since 2004, CPA has helped restaurant and food industry workers recover over $725,000 in unpaid wages and minimum wage violations. CPA also played a leadership role in passing Prop L - SF Minimum Wage Ordinance, Prop F - SF Paid Sick Leave Ordinance and the SF Second Hand Smoke Ordinance.


Unity for Dignity : Expanding the Right to Organize to Win Human Rights at Work

Excluded Workers Congress

Excluded workers congress

At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, millions of workers in the United States are excluded from the most basic human right: the right to organize. Either by policy or by practice, millions of workers cannot organize without facing retaliation, cannot bargain, cannot transform their workplace conditions, and cannot access basic labor protections. In short: millions of workers are robbed of dignity. These workers include more than a million and a half farmworkers, nearly two million domestic workers, millions of public employees in eleven states and private employees in twenty-two states that have right-to-work laws, plus nearly three million tipped workers and hundreds of thousands of guestworkers and day laborers. The exclusion of these workers from the right to organize has had extraordinary consequences for all workers in the United States: over the last 40 years, as the floor has fallen from under the feet of these workers, wages for all workers have declined. The decline in wages, in turn, has contributed to a US economic recession. As it turns out, the cost of exclusion—once thought of as an issue of “the most vulnerable”—is high for all workers and every sector of US society.

The Los Angeles Taxi Workers Alliance

University of California Transportation Center


Taxi drivers are often portrayed as the ultimate entrepreneurs, free of any fixed workplace, able to choose their own hours, and with a toehold in the American middle class. That stereotype may have been accurate in New York City decades ago (Hodges 2007, Mathews 2005), but in contemporary Los Angeles, taxi drivers spend long hours in “sweatshops on wheels,” their pay and working conditions controlled largely by company owners. Less than half of L.A. taxi drivers own their own cabs, and many of those who do have borrowed heavily to purchase them (Blasi and Leavitt 2006 49). In 2005, L.A. taxi drivers formed the Los Angeles Taxi Workers Alliance (LATWA) in order to improve working conditions, gain control over their jobs, and earn respect. This chapter documents LATWA’s efforts and accomplishments and assesses its future prospects. A critical focus of LATWA’s organizing is the status of the drivers. In the mid-1980s, the L.A. City Council acquiesced to a company owner's proposal to transform drivers from employees to independent contractors, which means that they are no longer covered by minimum wage laws or other labor protections. Subsequently, the City awarded franchises to several taxi “cooperatives” – a misleading term since an insider elite and owners of companies that provide essential services to the cooperatives continue to exercise a great deal of control over the drivers. One driver we interviewed called the industry a “monster,” evoking the imagery of a hydra with nine heads, alluding to the fact that 9 companies control all of L.A.’s 2,303 cabs, largely through a structure of cooperatives and private corporations few drivers understand.

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