NEWARK, NJ- Two immigrant waitresses at a Chinese restaurant in Wayne were exploited by their bosses because of their gender and ethnicity, deprived of wages and tips and housed in a crowded, substandard apartment, according a complaint filed today against the restaurant's owners and management by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The former employers of our clients were unrelenting in their abuse. They drove these women to work more hours than most people can comprehend, required the waitresses to pay a daily kickback to keep their jobs, and did not even pay them a base wage," said Jennifer Arnett Lee, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Women's Rights Project who is serving as co-counsel with the ACLU of New Jersey in the case.
"Immigrant workers face a tremendous amount of exploitation, and female immigrant workers face the additional burden of being exploited based on their gender -- yet they have also been more reluctant to come forward," Arnett Lee noted. "Our clients faced threats of violence and retaliation for speaking out, and we applaud their bravery in seeking to end these exploitative conditions for themselves and others."
The ACLU's legal complaint recounts disturbing incidents of exploitation that took place between May 2000 and November 2001 at the King Chef Chinese restaurant in the northern New Jersey suburb of Wayne. During that time, the waitresses -- who are from Fuchow in southern China's Fujian Province -- worked an average of 80 hours per week, six days a week, and were never paid a base wage.
The restaurant's practices, the ACLU lawsuit charged, violated federal and state labor laws as well as federal and state civil rights laws. The ACLU seeks to recover for its clients all unpaid minimum wages and unpaid overtime compensation and has asked the court to award appropriate compensatory and punitive damages.
"Aside from the moral issue of treating our clients almost like slaves, these practices are unlawful under state and federal labor and discrimination laws," said Alix R. Rubin of the New Jersey-based law firm Lowenstein Sandler PC, who is serving as a volunteer attorney for the ACLU of New Jersey.
"The restaurant owners clearly discriminated against our clients on the basis of their Fujianese origin as well as their gender by creating a hostile work environment and not giving them the same opportunity to earn tips-their only income-as the male waiters from northern China," Rubin added.
According to the ACLU lawsuit, the only income the women received was tips, and they were required to pay a daily kickback of at least $15 to the employer to keep their jobs. In addition, King Chef enforced a discriminatory seating policy whereby the male waiters from northern China were given the choice tables and the female Fujianese waitresses were given the remaining, smaller tables to wait upon.
The employer also housed the waitresses and other employees in a substandard apartment, the ACLU said in legal papers. Approximately seven women lived in one bedroom, three men lived in a second bedroom and at least four people lived in a combined kitchen/living-room area. According to the ACLU's clients, the apartment was so crowded that residents had to crawl over each other in order to reach the bathroom, and the apartment was often without electricity or running water.
"When I came to America I expected to work hard, but I did not expect to be treated the way I and other Fujianese waitresses were," said Ms. Liu, a former waitress at King Chef and a named plaintiff in the case. "I have a family here and in China to support so I need to receive my wages after I work."
The lawsuit, Liu v. Oriental Buffet Inc., was filed in U.S. District Court in Newark, New Jersey. The lawsuit names An Na Zheng, Xiao Yang Zheng, Ben Liang Zhu, Frank Chan (who maintains numerous aliases) Jimmy Ching as defendants in the case.
Today's filing is an amended version of an original complaint, which was filed on May 22, 2003. Lenora Lapidus, Director of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project and Edward Barocas, Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey also serve as co-counsel in the case.