Homeless but employed: the Chicago restaurant employees living under a bridge

States attorney general is suing job agencies, alleging that they target vulnerable workers and trade place them with restaurant employers who exploit them

Javier and Daniel sit rigidly on a dirty mattress inside the makeshift shanty, peering out from behind a tattered comforter, their bodies shaking. Angel is on a contravene, stained office chair just outside. In a slump, mildewed tent next door, three men lie motionless side by side under a heap of blankets, staring up at the moist canvas. Two other lean-tos made of old mattresses, blue tarps and threadbare blankets complete the small community.

The ground is littered with crumpled brew cans, disposed clothes, food scraps and a monster mask.

Some days the encampment under a bridge just south of downtown and only north of Chicagos Chinatown has the feeling of a bedraggled backyard barbecue. Human from Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala cook frozen shrimp or crab over a flame, drink beers, gag and even sing. On this Saturday in February, however, “the mens” are silent, and the anxiety and sadnes in the air are palpable. It is just too cold.

These men are homeless but they are not unemployed. They work at Chinese buffets, Japanese sushi bars and steakhouses, and other restaurants across the midwest, sent by Chinese job agencies that are being investigated by the Illinois attorney general for alleged civil rights, human rights and labor law violations.

Attorney general Lisa Madigans complaint, filed on 12 November, names three nearby hiring agencies and two Illinois restaurants and refers to a larger network of eateries. One of the agencies closed its doors in October after the city issued constructing code violations; the other two agencies and the restaurants continue operating. In answers are presented in federal court, the defendants have all denied the allegations or told such violations are not their responsibility. Talking with the Guardian, relevant agencies owners and their lawyers denied wrongdoing or a connection with the homeless men.

The people under the bridge are no good, lazy, Ganglie Jiao, the owner of one of the three agencies sued by the attorney general, told the Guardian. Perhaps they ran at Chinese restaurants but not through my office. He later confessed: maybe some go to my office.

The agencies pay for bus or train tickets to send the men to eateries in other states, where they live in housing controlled by the restaurant owners, as described by more than 30 men interviewed between October and March. The men owe relevant agencies a commission of $120 to $250 for each job; they typically work four days to pay off the commission on human rights and transportation. After that, they typically construct $400 to $600 for running six-day weeks, 12 hours a day, as dishwashers, cutters, friers or cooks.

That comes out to$ 5-8 an hour, significantly below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour plus time-and-a-half for overtime. The us attorney general complaint quotes wages as low as $3.50 an hour and committees between $120 and $220.

These employment agencies target vulnerable Latino workers and place them with restaurant employers who exploit them, Madigan said.

The complaint, filed on behalf of the public and the Illinois department of labor, adds: These unlicensed job agencies have targeted Latino workers and actively marketed their ability to provide such Latino( or Mexican) workers to Chinese buffet restaurants that looked to fill low-paid kitchen positions.

Cara Hendrickson, chief of the attorney generals public interest division, said they are not trying to close the restaurants, but rather force them to comply with the law. The lawsuit demands the hire agencies, meanwhile, be closed through a permanent injunction.

Most of the workers are undocumented. Their last names are not used here because of their undocumented status and because most still hope to get work in restaurants.

Mario is often angry at the Chinese restaurant owners for the low pay and the way they treat Mexican workers. Photo: Lloyd DeGrane

Mario, 44, has worked in countless Chinese restaurants around the country, many of them through the Chicago hire agencies. He is often angry at the Chinese restaurant owners for the low pay and the way they treat Mexican workers. He described constant insults and work demands that are nearly impossible to meet. I only have two hands, two eyes, two ears what do they expect me to do? he told after leaving a job he had for only a few days.

Mario came to the US from Guerrero after splitting from his wife and tiring of his grueling work carrying bags of cement like a burro. Around a flame under the bridge one January night, he reminisced about growing squash as big as guitars and other veggies in the Mexican countryside. He violated into a romantic Chinese song along with Kent, a man who has lived under the bridge for 18 years.

I speak more Chinese than English, I like my job, Mario told. But I never guessed I would be living under a bridge. If I die here, I die alone.

He often talks of going back to Mexico. Instead, he objective up back on a Greyhound bus to another restaurant job.

When workers such as Mario are sent to restaurants outside Chicago, “the mens” stay in apartments or homes controlled by the restaurant owners, living with other workers. They typically eat at the buffets, though they are often not allowed to eat the more expensive meat or shrimp. Chinese workers earn more and receive better treatment than the Latinos, who are regularly insulted, denied violates and sometimes even beaten, according to the attorney generals complaint and the mens accounts.

The pay is cash and off the books, other than a ticket from relevant agencies listing the commission on human rights and transportation cost and an agreed upon wage, as confirmed by the attorney for one agency. The men get no benefits, paid vacation days or compensation when they are burned, cut or otherwise injured on the job, the attorney generals complaint notes.

The men typically do not stay at any one restaurant long, anywhere from a few days to a few weeks or months, before the boss fires them or they cease in frustration. Then they head back to Chicago, back under the bridge, as they say in Spanish and English, to live outdoors while awaiting the chance to pay another committee for another job.

They come from Honduras, Guatemala and across Mexico, including Mexico City. Most of them crossed the border years ago and ran more lucrative tasks, including landscaping, roofing, painting, building, mill work and picking fruit, before the economic crisis and their own health or life circumstances drove them to what many see as a last resort, these restaurant tasks.

Some said they are stuck in the restaurant jobs and homeless because of traumata that rule out other work, or because of drinking problems that make it hard to seek work or live their lives family members. Others said they dont mind the situation, appreciating the freedom of the media that the transient restaurant work devotes them, and the chance to live in apartments or homes in other cities. A few have ceased working in the restaurants but still lived under the bridge.

Angel. Photo: Lloyd DeGrane

Because of immigration, I cant travel to my country, so I stay here, you know me, told Antonio, 27, a man from Guatemala who went to school in Florida as a teen and speaks English. Take it easy. Im under the bridge drinking brew, thats all I have. I dont have nothing. So now Im sitting here, drinking brew , no complications. You know me.

Despite the homeless encampments proximity to downtown and Chinatown, most locals, city officials and even homeless service providers seem largely unaware of its existence. The men say that Chicago firefighters sometimes stop by and tell them to extinguish their flames, fueled with scraps of cardboard, Chinese newspapers and wood from trees in an adjacent undeveloped swath of prairie. Staff at the nearby park district field house used to let them use the facilities, until brew cans left in the showers triggered a ban on homeless men, several explained.

The men say that at the least one of relevant agencies owners has advised them to bide under the bridge while they are waiting for their next assignment. When sleeping outside, they store their battered roller pouches or suitcases at the hiring offices and retrieve them before heading toward a job.

But on freezing nights or when the outdoor lifestyle becomes too much, “the mens” might pay $10 a night to sleep on the floor in squalid conditions in the hire agency offices, as described in the attorney generals complaint. Or they might splurge a bit more to share a room at the nearby Chinatown Hotel or at the Karavan Motel, about six miles west. Reviews on Yelp describe both as seedy and filthy; the worst hotel in the world and the worst motel I ever been to.

The men might also sleep at a nearby homeless shelter called Pacific Garden Mission. But they unanimously say the mission is a last resort because of the fights, bed bugs, racial tensions, and harsh treatment by staff.

If you pay $10 you can stay in the office. If you dont have $10, they say go under the bridge, Antonio told. Here there are no bathrooms you can have trouble, you can get sick.

If you pay $10 you can stay in the office. If you dont have $10, they say go under the bridge, Antonio told. Photo: Lloyd DeGrane

The agencies advertise for workers in a widely circulated Chinese newspaper called World Journal, with one offering a great number of Mexican workers who are sincere and honest; while another offered competent Mexicans and called itself the base camp of Mexican workers.

The attorney general charges the defendants with contravening federal civil rights and country human rights laws by hiring, recruiting, disciplining and treating workers differently based on race and national origin.

But Pengtian Ma, the attorney for the Xing Ying or Shun Ying Employment Agency, said the fact that his clients offered in newspaper ads to offer Latino workers does not constitute discrimination.

I guess because they have this language obstacle they cannot express themselves to the outside world, he told, adding that the prosecutor general is too sensitive to the mention of race in a newspaper. They regard every mention of race as politically incorrect.

Multiple men said the agencies sent them to eateries in Illinois towns or suburbs including Pontiac, Kewanee, Waukegan and Harvard, to Indianapolis; St Louis; Lansing, Michigan; Detroit; Iowa City; Des Moines, Iowa; Columbus, Ohio; and Wisconsin cities including Milwaukee, Madison, Oshkosh and Appleton.

Men often said they did not know the name of the restaurant they were working in or exactly where it was located, since they are typically picked up at the Greyhound or Amtrak station and transported to the apartments or homes where they remain. Eatery owners or faculty also transport them to and from work.

We go everywhere: Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, told Jess, a man from Mexico City with a pock-marked face and a big smile, who said he often earns $1,600 a month as a dishwasher. We live together in homes, the room and food is all free.

Such arrangings garnered media and law enforcement attention after a 1 February fire at a house in Novi, Michigan, where five Mexican workers died trapped in a cellar with no alternative exit. The workers were employed at a Chinese restaurant owned by Roger Tam and his wife, who also owned the house where “the mens” perished. The couple are now facing criminal charges. Those men reportedly were paid $2,000 a month for running six days a week, 12 hours a day.

Some of “the mens” drink a lot of brew and hurl their cans at the foot of the beds. Photo: Lloyd DeGrane

While there is no evidence of a connection between the Novi restaurant and the Chicago hiring agencies, Hendrickson said it is included in her offices investigation.

Some men also report physical abuse from agency or restaurant owners. The us attorney general complaint notes that one of relevant agencies owners, Jun Jin Cheung, is known for sometimes beating or physically assaulting workers.

Ma, Cheungs attorney, countered that his client had never been abusive but rather had once been attacked by workers. That gentleman is a person of short stature he was the victim of physical abuse by one or two of the workers, Ma told of his client. Sometimes some of the workers get drunk and came to the premises to make a mess over there.

Multiple workers reported not being paid even the low amounts the latter are promised for their work. Several men described threatening to call the police when the restaurant owners didnt pay them, but the owners or administrators didnt seem alarmed and the workers didnt contact police.

The us attorney general complaint alleges the hire agencies benefit from high turnover at the restaurants.

Indeed, they profit from these poor working conditions; when employees inevitably leave the restaurants, they often have nowhere else to run but back to the agencies, where they again are exploited and become indebted to the agencies for an additional agency fee in order to be placed in another restaurant job.

Ma said his clients have nothing to do with how long workers stay at a given restaurant.

The men under the bridge often complain bitterly about the Chinese hire agencies. But most of them keep going back. Jos Oliva, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, told violations of labor laws are common in the restaurant industry, especially when staff members shall be undocumented immigrants. Many workers take tasks willingly, violations and all.

Theyre not insuring it as slavery, as trafficking, as servitude, he told. They see it as a favor. People have to take whatever tasks they can get. The importance is survival.

Some of relevant agencies owners responded by highlighting their own vulnerability. The lawyer for the China Employment Agency, which closed before the attorney generals complaint was even filed, defended his client by citing language barriers.

My client speaks Chinese and only Chinese, told attorney Frank Valenti. Valenti said the business closed because city officials charged the latter are serving food without a license but denied other legal violations. My appreciation was there were advertisings placed in the Chinese newspaper and restaurants would call this agency and this agency would then put this restaurant in contact with the worker. They got a commission of $120 per worker if the worker was there for a month. And that was the end of it.

Ma, Cheungs attorney, highlighted the economic conflicts of his clients, who he described as an immigrant couple with two adult children.

Jos said he was beat and rob of about $400 he had earned running. Photo: Lloyd DeGrane

The family is struggling to make a livelihood, to survive with this small business, Ma told. The entire household relies on this meager income. By their work they are promoting opportunities for those unprivileged people, they have nowhere to go, they dont have any job opportunities. I guess my clients were providing a service to that community.

Ma said that his clients did not know anything about alleged legal violations. He told since his clients dont speak English or Spanish, they largely communicate with the workers by sign language and would have no way to understand if the workers were being mistreated or underpaid at the restaurants.

The third agency named in the complaint, Jiaos Employment Agency, simply denied any wrongdoing.

Im not afraid of nothing, I am not a criminal, I did not do something bad, I dont do nothing incorrect, Ganglie Jiao said in broken English.

Jiaos attorney, Marian Ming, said her client is innocent and declined to comment further.

Jos, 46, also lives under the bridge, but he no longer considers himself part of the restaurant labor pool. A hand injury from falling down induced him unable to work for months, and a robbery on the street near Jiaos agency left him with a battered face and black eye over Thanksgiving weekend.

A truck driver in Mexico, Jos induced his way to Chicago and run in roofing. When that slackened during a harsh winter, he found out about the Chinese restaurants from someone at Pacific Garden Mission.

Joss hand is now mended, but he doesnt want to go back to the agencies. He said he typically induced only $1,400 a month running 12 -hour days six days a week, and in the other cities he would get lonely.

The only ones who benefit are the offices, he told. If you leave the job they still get the commission and if you leave then you pay another committee. The Chinese give you lots of work and low pay.

In the summer Jos plans to go back to Mexico, he says. He only needs to get the money together for a bus ticket.

There are too many problems in the street, under the bridge, he told. The tasks are bad. Its unhealthy. My life, my destiny isnt here.

In early March, police officer told men living under the bridge that they would need to move by the next day, “the mens” reported. City workers returned and removed the tent and plethora of filthy mattresses, tarps, committees and other components of makeshift shanties. But “the mens” speedily found a new location, under a nearby railroad bridge, adorned with graffiti advising Love your life.

A few days after being evicted from their previous encampment, “the mens” had already amassed a new stash of blankets and a weathered old sofa. They planted tiny Mexican and American flags on a hump of globe outside the enclosure.

As snow swirled outside one day in early April, “the mens” talked talked about their hopes that arrive summer, they might find better jobs in another industry.

Look at my hands, they are strong, Im ready to do any kind of work, told a man from Monterrey, Mexico, in Spanish. When you live like this, people only look down at you, they dont see you as a person. But there is so much strength, there is so much talent here.

This story was produced as part of the Social Justice News Nexus fellowship program at the Medill journalism school at Northwestern University .

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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