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ON THE LAW

Advocates for Immigrant Worker Rights

Groups defend otherwise voiceless newcomers against exploitation on the job.

July 26, 2002|JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Roman Vargas' hands were cracked and peeling from working as a dishwasher in a Koreatown restaurant. His bosses were often physically and emotionally abusive, he says, and he was paid $250 a week with no overtime or breaks.

Vargas, who emigrated from Vera Cruz, Mexico, in 1999, knew nothing about labor law, and like many other undocumented immigrants working in Koreatown, was afraid of speaking up for his rights.

Vargas said he had heard of an organization that helped immigrant workers in Koreatown. But he wasn't sure that a group named Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates would help a Mexican immigrant fight for his rights.

Vargas, 35, hesitantly walked into the agency's 8th Street office one day. He was greeted by a Korean woman who spoke fluent Spanish.

After KIWA helped him win two claims filed with the state Department of Labor office against his former employer for about $3,400, Vargas now works as a labor organizer for the group. He informs Latino workers of their rights and helps them file their own wage claims.

"I want workers to know they have rights as immigrants," he said.

KIWA, founded a month before the 1992 Los Angeles riots, is one of several Los Angeles immigrant worker advocacy groups aimed at navigating the bureaucratic world of labor laws for those such as Vargas who are otherwise virtually voiceless.

Two similar groups--the Pilipino Workers Center and the Thai Community Development Center--were formed at KIWA's office and have since moved on to neighborhoods where many Thai and Filipino immigrants live. From the start, they used KIWA as their labor organizing model.

That agency's founders say they started it because of their belief that immigrant Korean workers were being ignored in a neighborhood where Korean merchants were being portrayed as a model minority success story.

"When KIWA started, the community didn't have a voice for these poor working people," said Danny Park, one of the four founders.

With just as many Latino immigrant workers in the neighborhood, it also made sense to reach out to them, Parks added.

These days, Latino workers in Koreatown know that KIWA is a resource, mainly because six of the 11 staff members speak Spanish, Vargas said.

"Now they see Latino faces here," he said.

Before becoming its staff attorney, 26-year-old Steve Arredondo found that KIWA was the only advocacy group in the neighborhood focused solely on workers' rights. "Growing up, I saw how immigrant workers were treated," said Arredondo, whose father was a spray painter from Mexico City.

On a recent afternoon, Arredondo sat with a worker speaking in Spanish, preparing paperwork to file a wage claim against the owner of the grocery store where the man worked.

Most of the employees at KIWA and the other organizations, whose work centers on immigration, labor, housing and consumer law, are not lawyers. Nor have they formally studied law. But with help from legal aid services and daily experience with workers' complaints, they say they find themselves with enough legal knowledge to help provide assistance.

"A lot of times our clients don't understand their basic rights. My staff is able to explain these processes to them in a way that's simplified," said Chanchanit Martorell, executive director of the Thai center. "Especially for the community we serve, who are the most downtrodden and disenfranchised of society."

The Pilipino Workers Center was formed in 1997 by a group of young activists who believed the Filipino community lacked a voice for immigrant workers. They say their main goal is to empower the community by teaching workers how to have access to the law "so that they're not always dependent on lawyers," said Executive Director Aquilina Soriano.

Soriano, 27, and four other PWC staff members--most in their early 20s--are finding themselves thrust into the legal world. "I've never been to law school," Soriano said, but the paralegal work provided at the center "comes from necessity."

The Thai Community Development Center, which was instrumental in freeing garment workers who authorities said were enslaved in an El Monte sweatshop in 1995, has help from volunteers who practiced law in Thailand and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

The Thai center's legal services were crucial to Tsonglim Kamphiranon. Trafficked from Thailand, Kamphiranon worked for a Woodland Hills family as a domestic for seven years. She was held against her will in the home, working from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, then working until midnight at a restaurant the family owned.

With help from a friend, Kamphiranon escaped in 1999 and was taken to the Thai center.

The center helped Kamphiranon and another Thai worker prepare for the federal trial against the employers--conducting mock court hearings to show them where the judge sits, where the witness stand is. The owner of the Woodland Hills home got eight years in prison for involuntary servitude and harboring illegal immigrants.

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