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WESTLAKE : Activists Train to Aid Korean Workers

July 04, 1993|JAKE DOHERTY

As promising students and young professionals, the 17 Korean-Americans who participated in a recent leadership training workshop are primed for bright and satisfying careers, but they have set their sights on helping those for whom work is just a job, and often not a pleasant one.

The three-day workshop was sponsored by the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates, an organization that provides job-related legal assistance and other support.

Unions have organized few local Korean-American workers, and until recently relatively few Korean-Americans considered working as labor and community organizers. But since last year's riots, some 1.5- and second-generation Korean-Americans have sought to become more involved in their community. The Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates is one of the few organizations able to channel their energy, said activists.

"Immigrants who speak no English think they have no power," said Kyung Sin Park, a UCLA law student who helped organize the workshop. "We can help give them a sense of what they can do (if they organize)."

While Korean-American merchants and professionals may be more visible, many Korean immigrants are employed in the garment, restaurant, hotel, electronics and construction industries or as self-employed subcontractors, said Roy Hong, executive director of the labor organization.

A significant portion of these workers earn less than the minimum wage, receive no overtime pay, lack health insurance and face other unfair practices, often at the hands of Korean-American employers who fall back on appeals to "ethnic loyalty" when pressed to improve conditions, Hong said.

About 36% of Korean-American employees in Los Angeles County work for other Korean-Americans, said Edward Park, assistant professor of ethnic and women's studies at Cal Poly Pomona. He also found that 58% of the Korean-American households in Koreatown earn less than $25,000 a year.

Since the labor organization was established last year, about 300 employees have received help with claims for back wages and overtime, unemployment compensation, safety concerns and other job-related problems, Hong said.

The precarious employment circumstances of many immigrants forces them to rely on outside advocates to help them organize to improve working conditions.

Workshop participants studied the nuts and bolts of putting together an organizing campaign, polished their "door-knocking" skills and listened to activists.

Nancy Yoo, a UCLA graduate student whose mother worked for a time in a sewing factory when the family first arrived in the United States, and Alyssa Kang, a UCLA student activist, both said they plan to stay involved with the labor organization.

"Being an activist isn't easy but we fill a needed niche in the community," Kang said. "Workers are often neglected. KIWA is a grass-roots organization dedicated to changing that and teaching us the leadership skills to help."

Information: (213) 738-9050.

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