Jonathan Bilyk Nov. 12, 2015, 1:14pm

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has served a federal civil rights action against companies run by Chinese nationals who advertise they can provide “honest” and “sincere” Mexicans to work in Chinese buffet restaurants across the Midwest, saying the job placement agencies and the restaurant owners profited from placing “vulnerable and desperately poor Latino workers” in jobs at which they were routinely exploited, discriminated against, underpaid and housed in dingy conditions in return for their labor.

On Nov. 12, Madigan filed suit in federal court in Chicago on behalf of the state of Illinois and the Illinois Department of Labor against defendants Xing Ying Employment Agency, Jiao’s Employment Agency Inc., Chinatown Agencia de Empleo, New Hibachi Grill Buffet Inc., Royal Cicero Inc., and those businesses’ owners and other associated individuals.

The complaint asks the court to issue an injunction against the employment agencies and the restaurants, barring them from continuing with their alleged business practices with regard to the Latino workers, and to pay more than $118,000 in back wages, plus interest, to the workers, and penalties of $10,000 per violation, plus additional penalties of 20 percent of unpaid wages, to the state.

The lawsuit alleged against the defendants multiple violations of federal civil rights law and state human rights and wage and hour laws.

According to the complaint, the employment companies, based in Chicago, have since at least 2010 “targeted vulnerable Latino workers and placed them in restaurant jobs across the Midwest where they work long hours in pressured and sometimes abusive working conditions, are required to stay in dirty, crowded housing, and are paid well below the minimum wage.”

The restaurants with which the employment agencies work are normally “Chinese buffet restaurants that looked to fill low-paid kitchen positions,” the complaint said.

According to the complaint, the wages for the jobs in which the workers are placed typically amount to $3-$6 per hour, significantly less than the state’s $8.25 minimum wage. The workers are typically drawn to these positions with promises of jobs that not only pay regularly, but also offer free housing and food.

However, the housing provided by the restaurants and employment agencies typically is cramped, as the employers pack dozens of men into small apartments, causing most to sleep on the floor or on “dirty mattresses that they have retrieved from garbage dumpsters” and usually to share just one bathroom. Further, the complaint alleged the living quarters are dirty and “infested with bed bugs, rats or other vermin.”

While at work, the complaint alleged the workers are granted less than minimal meal breaks, are made to “work through” injuries suffered on the job, including cuts from knives and cutting machines, and are subjected to name-calling, racial slurs and other verbal abuse by management and non-Latino employees.

The complaint said the working conditions stand in contrast to those afforded to non-Latino employees who hold better paying positions with regular and longer break times, and generally “less stressful working conditions.”

Paid once per month, Latino workers’ paychecks are further reduced by deductions, ostensibly to cover the employers’ costs to house, feed and transport the employees, and to pay commissions to the employment agencies referring the workers to the restaurants, the complaint said.

The employment agencies can charge commissions and fees of $120-$220 per worker, which is typically deducted from the workers’ first paychecks, the complaint said.

They typically would advertise their services in the World Journal, a Chinese language newspaper distributed in the Midwest. The advertisements would tell the restaurant owners of the agencies’ ability to “supply them with ‘a large number of Mexican workers’ who are ‘sincere’ and ‘honest.’”

Advertisements for Jiao’s company, for instance, describes the business as “the base camp of Mexican workers.”

“In short, these employment agencies essentially acted as central supply houses for a buffet restaurant industry seeking to profit from illegal and exploitative wages and conditions of employment,” the complaint said.

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