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Homeless but employed: the Chicago restaurant workers living under a bridge

Homeless but employed: the Chicago restaurant workers living under a bridge

0 Comment(s) | Posted | by Ian Pajer-Rogers |

Photograph: Lloyd DeGrane

From The Guardian:

by Kari Lydersen

Javier and Daniel sit rigidly on a dirty mattress inside the makeshift hovel, peering out from behind a tattered comforter, their bodies shaking. Angel is on a broken, stained office chair just outside. In a slumping, mildewed tent next door, three men lie motionless side by side under a pile of blankets, staring up at the moist canvas. Two other lean-tos made of old mattresses, blue tarps and threadbare blankets complete the small community.

The ground is littered with crumpled beer cans, discarded clothes, food scraps and a monster mask.

Some days the encampment under a bridge just south of downtown and just north of Chicago’s Chinatown has the feeling of a bedraggled backyard barbecue. Men from Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala cook frozen shrimp or crab over a fire, drink beers, joke and even sing. On this Saturday in February, however, the men are silent, and the fear and misery in the air are palpable. It is just too cold.

These men are homeless but they are not unemployed. They work at Chinese buffets, Japanese sushi bars and steakhouses, and other restaurants across the midwest, sent by Chinese employment agencies that are being investigated by the Illinois attorney general for alleged civil rights, human rights and labor law violations.

Attorney general Lisa Madigan’s complaint, filed on 12 November, names three nearby hiring agencies and two Illinois restaurants and refers to a larger network of eateries. One of the agencies closed its doors in October after the city issued building code violations; the other two agencies and the restaurants continue operating. In responses filed in federal court, the defendants have all denied the allegations or said such violations are not their responsibility. Talking with the Guardian, the agency owners and their lawyers denied wrongdoing or a connection with the homeless men.

“The people under the bridge are no good, lazy,” Ganglie Jiao, the owner of one of the three agencies sued by the attorney general, told the Guardian. “Maybe they worked at Chinese restaurants – but not through my office.” He later conceded: “maybe some go to my office”.

The agencies pay for bus or train tickets to send the men to restaurants in other states, where they live in housing controlled by the restaurant owners, as described by more than 30 men interviewed between October and March. The men owe the agency a “commission” of $120 to $250 for each job; they typically work four days to pay off the commission and transportation. After that, they typically make $400 to $600 for working six-day weeks, 12 hours a day, as dishwashers, cutters, friers or cooks.

That comes out to $5-8 an hour, significantly below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour plus time-and-a-half for overtime. The attorney general’s complaint cites wages as low as $3.50 an hour and commissions between $120 and $220.

“These employment agencies target vulnerable Latino workers and place them with restaurant employers who exploit them,” Madigan said.

The complaint, filed on behalf of the public and the Illinois department of labor, adds: “These unlicensed employment agencies have targeted Latino workers and actively marketed their ability to provide such Latino (or ‘Mexican’) workers to Chinese buffet restaurants that looked to fill low-paid kitchen positions.”

Cara Hendrickson, chief of the attorney general’s public interest division, said they are not trying to close the restaurants, but rather force them to comply with the law. The lawsuit demands the hiring agencies, meanwhile, be closed through a permanent injunction.

Most of the workers are undocumented. Their last names are not used here because of their undocumented status and because most still hope to get work in restaurants.

Mario, 44, has worked in countless Chinese restaurants around the country, many of them through the Chicago hiring agencies. He is often angry at the Chinese restaurant owners for the low pay and the way they treat Mexican workers. He described constant insults and work demands that are nearly impossible to meet. “I only have two hands, two eyes, two ears – what do they expect me to do?” he said after leaving a job he had for only a few days.

Mario came to the US from Guerrero after splitting from his wife and tiring of his grueling work hauling bags of cement “like a burro”. Around a fire under the bridge one January night, he reminisced about growing “squash as big as guitars” and other vegetables in the Mexican countryside. He broke into a romantic Chinese song along with Kent, a man who has lived under the bridge for 18 years.

“I speak more Chinese than English, I like my job,” Mario said. “But I never thought I would be living under a bridge. If I die here, I die alone.”

He frequently talks of going back to Mexico. Instead, he ends up back on a Greyhound bus to another restaurant job.

When workers such as Mario are sent to restaurants outside Chicago, the men stay in apartments or houses controlled by the restaurant owners, living with other workers. They typically eat at the buffets, though they are often not allowed to eat the more expensive meat or shrimp. Chinese workers earn more and receive better treatment than the Latinos, who are regularly insulted, denied breaks and sometimes even beaten, according to the attorney general’s complaint and the men’s accounts.

The pay is cash and off the books, other than a “ticket” from the agency listing the commission and transportation cost and an agreed upon wage, as confirmed by the attorney for one agency. The men get no benefits, paid vacation days or compensation when they are burned, cut or otherwise injured on the job, the attorney general’s complaint notes.

The men typically do not stay at any one restaurant long, anywhere from a few days to a few weeks or months, before the boss fires them or they quit in frustration. Then they head back to Chicago, back “under the bridge”, as they say in Spanish and English, to live outdoors while awaiting the chance to pay another commission for another job.

They come from Honduras, Guatemala and across Mexico, including Mexico City. Most of them crossed the border years ago and worked more lucrative jobs, including landscaping, roofing, painting, construction, factory work and picking fruit, before the economic crisis and their own health or life circumstances drove them to what many see as a last resort, these restaurant jobs.

Some said they are stuck in the restaurant jobs and homeless because of injuries that rule out other work, or because of drinking problems that make it hard to seek work or live with family members. Others said they don’t mind the situation, appreciating the freedom that the transient restaurant work gives them, and the chance to live in apartments or houses in other cities. A few had stopped working in the restaurants but still lived under the bridge.

“Because of immigration, I can’t travel to my country, so I stay here, you know me,” said Antonio, 27, a man from Guatemala who went to school in Florida as a teenager and speaks English. “Take it easy. I’m under the bridge drinking beer, that’s all I have. I don’t have nothing. So now I’m sitting here, drinking beer, no complications. You know me.”

Despite the homeless encampment’s proximity to downtown and Chinatown, most locals, city officials and even homeless service providers seem largely unaware of its existence. The men say that Chicago firefighters sometimes stop by and tell them to extinguish their blazes, fueled with scraps of cardboard, Chinese newspapers and wood from trees in an adjacent undeveloped swath of prairie. Staff at the nearby park district field house used to let them use the facilities, until beer cans left in the showers sparked a ban on homeless men, several explained.

The men say that at least one of the agency owners has advised them to stay “under the bridge” while they are waiting for their next assignment. When sleeping outside, they store their battered roller bags or suitcases at the hiring offices and retrieve them before heading to a job.

But on freezing nights or when the outdoor lifestyle becomes too much, the men might pay $10 a night to sleep on the floor in squalid conditions in the hiring agency offices, as described in the attorney general’s complaint. Or they might splurge a bit more to share a room at the nearby Chinatown Hotel or at the Karavan Motel, about six miles west. Reviews on Yelp describe both as seedy and filthy; “the worst hotel in the world” and “the worst motel I ever been to”.

The men might also sleep at a nearby homeless shelter called Pacific Garden Mission. But they unanimously say the mission is a last resort because of the fights, bed bugs, racial tensions, and harsh treatment by staff.

“If you pay $10 you can stay in the office. If you don’t have $10, they say go under the bridge,” Antonio said. “Here there are no bathrooms – you can have trouble, you can get sick.”

The agencies advertise for workers in a widely circulated Chinese newspaper called World Journal, with one offering “a large number of Mexican workers” who are “sincere” and “honest”; while another offered “competent Mexicans” and called itself the “base camp of Mexican workers”.

The attorney general charges the defendants with violating federal civil rights and state human rights laws by hiring, recruiting, disciplining and treating workers differently based on race and national origin.

But Pengtian Ma, the attorney for the Xing Ying or Shun Ying Employment Agency, said the fact that his clients offered in newspaper ads to provide Latino workers does not constitute discrimination.

“I think because they have this language barrier they cannot express themselves to the outside world,” he said, adding that the attorney general is “too sensitive to the mention of race in a newspaper. They regard every mention of race as politically incorrect.”

Multiple men said the agencies sent them to restaurants in Illinois towns or suburbs including Pontiac, Kewanee, Waukegan and Harvard, to Indianapolis; St Louis; Lansing, Michigan; Detroit; Iowa City; Des Moines, Iowa; Columbus, Ohio; and Wisconsin cities including Milwaukee, Madison, Oshkosh and Appleton.

Men frequently said they did not know the name of the restaurant they were working in or exactly where it was located, since they are typically picked up at the Greyhound or Amtrak station and transported to the apartments or houses where they stay. Restaurant owners or staff also transport them to and from work.

“We go everywhere: Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin,” said Jesús, a man from Mexico City with a pock-marked face and a big smile, who said he often earns $1,600 a month as a dishwasher. “We live together in houses, the room and food is all free.”

Such arrangements garnered media and law enforcement attention after a 1 February fire at a house in Novi, Michigan, where five Mexican workers died – trapped in a basement with no alternative exit. The workers were employed at a Chinese restaurant owned by Roger Tam and his wife, who also owned the house where the men perished. The couple are now facing criminal charges. Those men reportedly were paid $2,000 a month for working six days a week, 12 hours a day.

Read more from The Guardian.

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