Chinese Community Assesses Minimum Wage Hike

Workers cheering the decision by Gov. Andrew Cuomo's wage board to raise the minimum wage for fast food workers to $15 an hour. (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing via Sing Tao Daily)

Workers cheering the decision by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s wage board to raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers to $15 an hour. (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing via Sing Tao Daily)

There are more African Americans and Hispanics than Chinese among workers in the fast-food industry. But many in the Chinese community believe the July 21 decision of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s wage board to increase the minimum wage for fast-food workers to $15 per hour will affect Chinese workers sooner or later. They don’t agree, however, as to whether the impact is positive or negative.

Many of the union workers who gathered on Church Street in Manhattan to celebrate the victory on July 21 are not in the fast-food industry. But they expect the wage hike to have an  across-the-board effect. They say when wages are higher in a certain industry, workers will be attracted to that industry. The pressure to retain workers will force employers to offer them pay raises.

KY Chow, owner of GM Printing, agreed. “Everyone will be affected,” he said. But in Chow’s opinion, the wage hike is a stunt politicians put on for their own political benefit, and the interests of small business owners were not considered at all. “Big companies will be fine because most of their employees are not at the minimum wage. We small business owners are the only victims,” said Chow. “Chinese businesses often hire new immigrants who don’t speak English. We offer them the minimum wage as well as training that is necessary to get any job in this country. And we end up being punished severely.”

Chow said when the minimum wage goes up, not only do employers have to offer new employees higher starting wages, but they also have to raise wages for workers hired earlier, in order to maintain the range based on seniority and experience. This will be too heavy a burden for many small business owners. “The only way employers can survive is to ask two people to do the job of three people. Layoffs will be inevitable,” said Chow.

Hua Li, a director of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, a rights organization for low wage Chinese workers, is disappointed that the decision didn’t go further and raise the minimum wage for all. She said the organization has been pushing for an increase in the minimum wage because the current level of $8.75 per hour has put many working people under the poverty line. But workers in the restaurants in Chinatown, despite their similar job duties and lower wages compared to fast-food workers, are being left out.

Li said theoretically, workers in Chinese restaurants can now go work for fast-food chains to make more money. But the labor capacity of the fast-food industry is not unlimited. Plus a lot of jobs have already been offered to students and part-time workers. Also, fast-food chains often require employees to go through rigorous training and to be able to communicate in English. These requirements basically shut the door to many recent Chinese immigrants.

Li agrees the increase in the fast food minimum wage brings more hope to workers in other fields. But she emphasized: “Workers have to fight for their way. The employers won’t give you what you want voluntarily.”

One of the pioneers in calling for a $15 per hour minimum wage was John Liu. During his tenure as the city’s comptroller (from 2010-2013), Liu issued a report proposing an across-the-board increase in the minimum wage to $15 in the city. During the mayoral campaign in 2013, Liu was considered radical when he insisted the minimum wage should be set at $15 while many other candidates would only support an $11 rate.

Talking to Sing Tao on July 21, Liu said the wage threshold should allow working people to live above the government-defined poverty level. [Editor’s note: The federal poverty level for 2015 for a family of four in the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia is $24,250 in annual income.]

The $15 figure in his report was the cutoff line based on this principle. Liu commended the governor for his achievement for fast-food workers. But he said the governor should keep pushing for a universal increase in the minimum wage. Liu said just hoping it will push up wages in other sectors automatically is not enough. “The minimum wage has to be protected by legislation,” he said. “This is only the beginning, not the end.”

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