Reclaiming Stolen Wages: The Koreatown Immigrant Workers’ Association

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By Mariya Strauss
Mariya Strauss is a Maryland-based writer who researches economic justice issues for PRA. Her investigative journalism and commentary have been published in The Nation, at the GlobalComment blog, and The Public Eye magazine, among others. You can follow her on Twitter at @mariyastrauss.

**This article is a companion to PRA’s Dark Money, Dirty War: The Corporate Crusade Against Low-Wage Workers**

A hive of activity in central Los Angeles since 1992, the Koreatown Immigrant Workers’ Association (KIWA) offers English classes, workers’ rights clinics, and housing advocacy for the area’s wide range of ethnic populations, according to executive director Alexandra Suh. “It’s a very diverse neighborhood,” Suh said. “Anyone who wants to come in and join is welcome to do so.” KIWA’s members are overwhelmingly Korean and anyone who identifies as Latino. The neighborhood of Koreatown is 58 percent Latino (which includes people from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other Central American countries), but Koreans make up the single largest ethnic group. Other groups that KIWA works with include African Americans, South Asians, Chinese, and others.

A KIWA action in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Charlie Kaijo

A KIWA action in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Charlie Kaijo

The approximately 5,000 immigrants and low-wage workers that KIWA serves could be considered poor, working poor, or working class. Many of them work precarious part-time and low-wage jobs. But rather than approaching these populations with an attitude of charity, KIWA approaches them with a message of solidarity. Its mission statement explains this approach: “KIWA seeks to strengthen progressive, immigrant worker leadership as part of a broad-based movement for social change.”

KIWA’s Worker Empowerment Clinic provides workshops and technical support for workers to learn their rights and how to recover their stolen wages. KIWA says that it “stands with” workers who are abused and exploited, helping them get more press coverage to expose bad-actor employers; it also organizes tenants and acts as a real estate developer to build more affordable housing in central Los Angeles.

The need for KIWA’s organizing work is real. Los Angeles’ low-wage workers face rampant wage theft and other wage-and-hour violations. A 2010 study by UCLA researchers found that the nearly three quarters of a million low-wage workers in Los Angeles County “regularly experience violations of basic laws that mandate a minimum wage and overtime pay and are frequently forced to work off the clock or during their breaks.” Respondents to the survey used in the study reported losing an average of $39.81 out of a weekly average wage of $318—meaning their employers stole an average of 12.5 percent of their earnings every week. “Assuming a full-year work schedule,” wrote the researchers, “these workers lost an average of $2,070.00 annually due to workplace violations, out of total annual earn­ings of $16,536.00.”

The need for organizing for better working conditions and an end to wage theft is so great that KIWA is now banding together with other Los Angeles-based worker centers to form a new group: the L.A. Worker Center Federation. Suh, who is acting director of the new group, said that the goal of both KIWA and the new L.A. Worker Center Federation is to proactively create a movement of low-wage workers—not simply respond to wage violations.

“I’ve seen how hard many business owners work and how much they struggle—including some of my family members and friends,” she said. “Business owners in the trenches where wage theft is worst know better than anyone the bitterness of the race to the bottom. I would invite honest businesspeople to speak out and join us in the movement to create workplaces where all are respected. We need businesspeople of integrity to go all in on the side of justice, and help create a community where everyone can thrive.”