This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Most people who live near Toronto's Chinatown neighborhood are quite familiar with the smell of fried rice and the sight of duck on a skewer. For broke students and struggling adults, it's comforting to know that, at any time, you can walk a block and grab a plate of cheap, delicious food and watch a crew of chefs and servers turn out dishes like clockwork. However, there's also a part that reeks dangerously of ethnic tourism—paying for food that would be way more expensive from a European restaurant, and enjoying a culture which many of us only seem to be interested in when our stomach rumbles. For many broke Canadians, it's a rite of passage, but that doesn't make it right.
Yesterday, a large study looking at Toronto's Chinese restaurant employees found that over half of them are underpaid, overworked, and treated unfairly by their employers. While the hustle and bustle of Chinatown makes it a hotspot for terrible labor conditions and illegal work, the numbers themselves are quite unsettling. Most employees surveyed were found to be working 44 to 60 hours a week with no overtime pay or vacation days, and many were paid half in cash, half by check—allowing employers to dodge taxes and screw over their employees with unaccounted hours.
But numbers only tell part of the story. To see what it's really like for the employees of Toronto's Chinese restaurants, I stopped by Chinatown for a few hours and asked the people who experience it on a day-to-day basis about their side of the data.
Names have been changed to protect identities.
VICE: How long have you been here for in Toronto for?
Su: Two years. My family moved here from Beijing because my dad had a work opportunity, but it didn't work out.
He works as a computer technician but doesn't speak English well and the person who promised him a job over here actually ended up [having him] on a list of other people. He waited a long time but eventually decided to start his own shop. It put our family in debt.
You work in Chinatown—what is your job like?
I am a server but I do a lot. I clean and sometimes pick up deliveries when things get busy. I work [around 50 hours a week.] I don't see my sister as much as I'd like to and I want to go to school soon.
Do you get paid less than you should be?
Well, I get paid a [lump sum] at the end of the month. I know that's not how it's supposed to be but I don't have a [work] Visa and I don't go to school. I don't have options like many others and it's not easy to get a job here with not great English.
Is that what stops you from going to a fairer work environment—the language barrier?
Yes, but it is also very [comfortable] to be around other Chinese people. I'm not totally accustomed to working beside so many different types of people. I don't think I could work in a Starbucks or a McDonald's.
VICE: As a cook, do you feel your job is easier or harder than servers?
Jon: Harder. Much harder. We all [have it tough], but it is part of the job. I don't complain.
Do you feel like Canadians who were born here have it easier?
Yes. Many of you don't have to work, uh, most days of the week, late into [the night]. Chinatown has very hard working people. I love Canada, I just think many people have it very easy.
But is having a relaxing job a bad thing? Don't you feel you're being treated unfairly?
By [Canadian] standards, I think I am. I know I am not being paid enough. I get paid minimum wage but I don't get paid for all my overtime. My boss will write 40 [hours] on my sheet, but I actually worked 55, or 56. I don't say anything because that's how it works. Anyone could replace me.
What kind of things do you do outside of your job?
I like working out and I find that [being strong] makes work easier, but I also like to take photos. I have a film camera. I'd like to take classes or go to school for it, but I need to get some things [sorted out] before that. I am going to keep working until then.
Does your work interfere with your outside life?
I sleep much of the time I am not at work and I drink more than I used to. I don't think it's a problem, but, some of the men here, I think they have problems. I don't want to be like that.
Chelsea, 21, and Li, 19
Why do you work in a restaurant right now?
Chelsea: It was an easy job to get and it helps me pay for my school stuff. I want to quit soon.
Li: I knew a few friends who worked around here so it's kind of a group thing.
Do you enjoy your job?
Chelsea: No, it's a very stressful [environment]. I have cried before. I wasn't raised here, but I did spend the last few years in Canada, so when I got hired here, I had different expectations. My family insisted I go somewhere I could keep my Chinese on point and my mother knew the owner. I didn't want this, but it just is what I do for right now.
Li: I find it OK. I have learned a lot being here, and I like how much it works me. I like to be [worn out] so I can feel stronger.
What's the worst part of working at the restaurant?
Chelsea: The kitchen is not easy to work in. People yell a lot and I am not good with criticism, especially when there's so much of it. We are all very stressed out and we don't like to talk more than is necessary, so it can feel, I don't know, lonely? I don't know if that's the right [word].
Li: I feel caught in a bad place with customers. I think they look at me and my [coworkers] as unfriendly, so I try to be nice. I think a lot of people come for cheap food but see what we do as [cheap also].
Are your tips bad, Li?
Li: Yes, but I don't keep them. I give them to my boss.
Are you being paid minimum wage?
Li: Uh, that's $10 CAD [$7.92 USD] [an hour]?
Chelsea: No, it's $11 CAD [$8.72 USD].
It's $11.25 CAD [$8.91 USD]. Are you getting that?
Neither of us are. We get server wage.
Li: Yes, I get $9 CAD [$7.13 USD] an hour but I never get more than $800 CAD [$634 USD] a week, [no matter how many hours I work.]
Does that bother you?
It does but I am also young so I don't feel like I've earned [a right to complain] yet.
What do you feel when coming into work?
Michelle: I used to feel angry, or tired, I think. I was very sad because it took so much of my life. But I have been here long enough—I have [the] respect of my boss and my [employees]. I like making people happy and feel good about themselves, I don't want them to feel like I did. So, to answer your question, I like coming into work. [Laughs]
You are a mid-level manager. Do you feel you have to be tough on people under you?
No, most people who work here know what needs to be done, and people who make mistakes are embarrassed. They don't want to do it again. I am somewhat soft when it comes to that. The man who works beside me, he is the bad cop. We work with each other like that but when work is done, we both laugh about it.
Are you paid equally to your male counterpart?
I haven't asked, but I don't think so. I don't want to [talk poorly] of my boss. I would just say that there is a closer connection between, uh, certain people and others. I have a friend who works at a bar [downtown]. She is Canadian. We met at the gym I go to. She makes more money than I do, but she doesn't work as much.
Is she also a manager like you are?
No, she is a greeter. I can tell that doesn't sound [fair], but it's…a different culture.
Is there a difference between how non-Chinese customers and Chinese customers treat your staff?
English is an issue. We have numbers, so orders are rarely wrong, but a lot of [drunk teens] come in late and can be very disrespectful. People have ran on bills often, and it's often too busy to do anything. You have to take what you get. I don't think my [Chinese] customers are much better—people just don't see what we serve as worth a lot.
How does that make you feel—that Chinese food is treated like, for a lack of better word, fast food?
It doesn't make me happy, but what can be done? I don't expect [another country] to see my country's food as the best. There is a lot of [competing restaurants] in Chinatown, people want food for less.
How long have you been working in a restaurant for?
This one, I don't know, five, maybe six years. I have been [in Chinatown] working for 20 years.
Why did you start working at a restaurant?
It was given to me as a favor. I came here as a student but I flunked out. I did not know the value of work. I had an older friend I had at school whose brother owned a number of restaurants. He told me, "Come and work. Figure out what you [want to do]."
You're still doing it 20 years later. Why did you stay?
It is easy. I have a wife now, and I am good at what I do. I like cooking, and I like cleaning, and I think it [sets a good example] for my sons. I like serving them food at home. My wife is a banker, she is amazing at what she does. I am happy here.
Do you work a lot?
Everyday. I never miss a day of work. I don't like [being sick] or not coming.
Seven days a week? Do you see your family much?
At night, I do. When I get home, we have a late dinner and tea. I also take a vacation [every six months] with them. The study you mentioned, I think that's true, but I also am too old to mind. I was not paid well when I was young. I am a boss now.
What about your younger employees? Do you feel bad for them?
No, I was once there. They can do it, no? This generation is [different], I cannot lie. I cannot know what it is like for them now, but I don't understand it. I think you should work to get there.
If you were growing up again, and you really wanted to pursue something outside of work, wouldn't you want to be able to pursue that while still making a living?
I wanted to make shelves and [wood] frames before. In school, I loved carpentry and crafting, all the intricate details. I think if I could go back, I would do that. I don't know if this is a good place to work for young people, but those who are here…They are here. That's it.
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