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HEARTS of the CITY

Advocates Educate, Aid Koreatown Workers

A group of young men and women have taken it upon themselves to help people whose problems are often overlooked.

July 03, 1996

At the edge of Koreatown, six young Korean Americans are taking on a problem that government and organized labor can't fix: the exploitation of low-wage workers in their community.

Thousands of labor law violations have been discovered by state labor officials in raids of businesses in Los Angeles' Koreatown. But even those who enforce the laws admit that the problem remains widespread.

Many workers in Koreatown are employed at non-unionized small businesses and, as recent immigrants, are unaware of what they can legally expect for their work.

So out of a dingy office on 3rd Street, the young women and men of Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates have taken it upon themselves to teach waiters, truck drivers, janitors and other laborers about minimum wage laws, workers' compensation and work safety rules.

The group's work helps people whose problems are often overlooked amid the luxurious hotels, department stores and restaurants of Koreatown, said Bong Hwan Kim, executive director of the Korean Youth and Community Center. "There's a stereotypical perception of Koreans, that they all do fabulously well and own businesses. That is not the reality. KIWA is the only group I know of that is focused on the [workplace] needs of the working poor in our community."

The group's recent accomplishments include helping about 40 workers at one of Koreatown's largest restaurants negotiate a labor agreement with their employer. Guided by the group's staff members, the workers bargained for back wages they had not been paid. They also won paid lunch breaks and assurances of 40-hour workweeks, and reached an agreement with the owner to establish a system for working out grievances with representatives elected by the workers.

The restaurant's apparent labor law violations had gone undetected by state and federal labor officials.

At the group's offices, workers are offered free English and computer skills classes to help them move to higher-paying jobs. Monthly seminars in Korean are also held on topics such as occupational safety and sexual harassment.

The group has published Korean language brochures explaining minimum wage and other labor laws, as well as guides for workers who need to take workplace grievances to government agencies or the courts.

The group was founded in Los Angeles in 1992 by a group of friends that included current directors Roy Hong and Danny Park, who were high school classmates in San Francisco.

Hong, 35, the son of a warehouseman and a garment worker, had worked as an organizer for the Service Employees International Union on the West Coast and felt there was no group to help poor Korean Americans with workplace problems.

"The unions were not in our community, and the [social] service organizations didn't address the problems of the low-wage immigrant workers," Hong said.

Although the group's mission is to help Korean immigrants, many of the workers who receive aid are Latinos, reflecting the makeup of the Koreatown-area work force.

Today, the group has an annual budget of $150,000, which supports its programs, office and six staff members. About a third of that comes from individual donors and two-thirds are from grants from small foundations, Hong said. "We're commitment-rich but resource-poor," Hong said.

Some of the staffers have passed up lucrative careers to do their good deeds. Lawyer K.S. Park, 25, a graduate of Harvard and UCLA Law School, set up a legal clinic in the group's office last year.

He obtained a two-year fellowship from a foundation to pay his $25,000 annual salary, and recruited student volunteers from local law schools to help run the clinic.

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Like Hong, Park, who came to Los Angeles from Korea at the age of 15, learned of the struggles of immigrant workers through his parents, a restaurant cook and a truck driver.

In addition to helping individuals in cases involving unpaid back wages, minimum wage law violations or workplace injuries, Park conducts semimonthly seminars on labor laws, as well as on topics such as tenant rights and immigration laws.

Park said that by educating workers about their legal rights and encouraging them to organize, they can work out disputes with their employers without going to court. "We try to help workers [realize] their collective power so they will not have to go through the legal system every time," Park said.

Civil rights lawyer Kathy Imahara said that the emphasis on training and education of workers is one of the group's strengths. "In addition to providing services, KIWA teaches people to stand up for their rights on their own. That's what makes it a great organization."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Beat

Today's centerpiece profiles Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates, a group that helps low-wage laborers achieve better pay and working conditions. For more information, call (213) 738-9050.

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