Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Chinese buffets, human smuggling and undocumented workers

Here's an example of how global justice issues connect with local suburban life. A few weeks before my trip to China, I was talking with my mom about China's history and culture, and in an offhand, tangential comment, she happened to mention, "You know why Chinese buffets are so cheap? Slave labor." She wasn't talking about restaurants in China; she was talking about (some) Chinese buffet restaurants here in the United States. She said that the reason they can keep their prices so low and offer so much food is because their labor costs are minimal. Undocumented workers work six days a week, twelve or fourteen hours a day, for less than minimum wage.

I Googled this topic the next day and came across the article "The Smuggler's Due" by Alex Kotlowitz from the June 11, 2006, issue of The New York Times Magazine. This is an amazingly well-reported piece that chronicles the experiences of a young man who was sent to the U.S. by his parents and worked to pay off a smuggling debt of $45,000. Kotlowitz writes:

. . . the smuggling of humans from China has continued, though no one is certain of the numbers; estimates, though elusive, range anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 a year. Some things have changed. The smugglers — known as "snakeheads" — have become more sophisticated and considerably more expensive. Though many Fujianese still come by freighter or by fishing boat, many now also arrive by plane bearing false papers; moreover, they often land — by boat or plane — first in Canada, the Caribbean or Central America. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reports that in recent months 50 to 100 Chinese each week have been taken into custody trying to cross the Mexican border.

The snakeheads, who in the 1980's had a Mafia-style presence in New York's Chinatown, often publicly beating and kidnapping those who fell behind in their payments, now apply much of their muscle back home in China, threatening and, if it serves their purposes, physically punishing family members of those who have fallen behind in their installments. For those on the Golden Venture, their travels cost roughly $30,000; the snakeheads reportedly now charge upward of $70,000.

As the cost has gone up, the number of years it takes to pay off the debt has risen as well. In the early 1990's, some could repay the smugglers in two years; it now takes twice as long. "A lot of Americans have a hard time understanding it," says Ko-lin Chin, a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University in Newark. "But put yourself in their shoes." If they remain in China, Chin says, they will earn perhaps $200 a month. If they come to the United States, they can earn $2,000 a month working at a restaurant. Once the debt is paid off, most continue to send money home and often help to pay the way for another family member to come to the U.S.
The workers have few expenses for food or housing (they are packed into apartments together), so most of their income goes to pay off the smuggling debts or is sent to their families back home in China. They have no papers or drivers' licenses and generally have little English proficiency, meaning that they have great challenges in navigating American society; after all, it is in the restaurants' interest to keep their labor force close at hand. Some escape the system, find work in non-exploitive restaurants and eventually are able to open and own their own restaurants.

What can we do? I'm not entirely sure. It's not just a matter of not eating at Chinese buffet restaurants; after all, most are lawful. The INS occasionally cracks down on restaurant owners that are exploitive and abusive. There's probably also a role here for local churches and Christians. My mom's Chinese church befriended some buffet workers and got to know their stories; they helped them learn English and get around. But the larger global challenges of human smuggling - does anybody know of any Christian organizations or mission agencies that work in this field?


modorney said...

This is so close to home. I live near San Francisco, and my job takes me there everyday. Occasionally, something happens, and I wind up at 24th and Mission, at a Chinese Buffet. The food is excellent, and I routinely buy 40 bucks worth (since that's about how much I can physically carry) and take it home.

My family loves the quality, and I was asking a long-time resident of San Fran about these restaurants. Generally, the best quality food is found at the ends of the spectrum. Small places, with 10 tables (or less), 10 employees, are good. Large places, with padded menus, half a dozen banquet rooms and lots of staff are excellent.

Everything in between (40 tables, 40 employees) is mediocre. Here's why. Small places are usually one family. Slave labor. A few "fuzzy cousins", but mostly mom and pop and all the kids. Big places are expensive - 30 bucks for a dinner - they can afford "legal" employees, and have to. They are too visible.

In between, the welterweights can't afford the cost of legal staff, and they can't charge twice as much as the handful of small places, around the corner. Quality suffers.

Mark Goodyear said...

Wow. I had no idea.