The true cost of a cheap meal
Tucked into a nondescript strip mall off Route 44 in Raynham, the Grand China Buffet was an affordable option for the customers and employees of the Big Lots and Pep Boys stores on either side of it. Especially popular was the $4.99 all-you-can-eat lunch deal. “The prices are great — much cheaper then other buffets,” customer Adam M. wrote on Yelp. “And for better food on top!”
But, for its workers, the Grand China Buffet was a virtual prison. The labor was grueling, former employee Felipe Merino Sanchez said: six days a week, more than 12 hours per day, doing food prep, cleaning the dining room, and fixing the HVAC system. The kitchen lacked safety equipment, the floors were slippery and filled with holes, the oven leaked gas. Cooking often meant reheating days-old food for the buffet, including, once, seafood that the kitchen staff was asked to pick out of the trash. When workers complained, they were fired.
At the end of each shift, employees were taken to a rooming house in neighboring Taunton where they were locked in for the night, according to Sanchez. Four to five people shared each room. "We couldn't leave as we wanted," Sanchez, whom the Globe located through worker advocates and government citations, said via a translator. "The door was alarmed." When the police knocked on the door one day, though, he hid. "I thought I'd lose my job or get deported."
Few casual diners would expect that a seemingly unremarkable eatery in Raynham could be a venue for what amount to human rights violations. But even at its highest levels, the restaurant industry is run on a more informal basis than most. Servers are paid mainly in tips; the back of the house often abounds with unofficial employees. These practices are problematic on their own terms, but they also create a fertile environment for conduct equivalent to human trafficking.
For all the attention given to undocumented housekeepers and gardeners, the food-service industry is among the leading employers — and exploiters — of immigrant labor. More than one-fifth of all food-service workers are foreign-born, according to a 2012 analysis by the Brookings Institution. And in many cases, the immigrants who are mistreated are fully legal.
But there are scant resources devoted to exposing these crimes, and most customers don't think twice, especially when the food is cheap and the cuisine is ethnic: Some familiar old tropes — that the ill-treatment of immigrant workers is merely adherence to cultural norms, that "making it" in America involves absorbing adversity — become common fig leaves for abuses.
And the restaurants that engage in such practices aren't isolated mom-and-pop horror shows: Many belong to networks that funnel immigrant labor, documented or not, from major entry points like New York City to smaller cities and towns across the country.
Sanchez, for one, crossed the US border from Mexico in 2003 and headed to New York City. Getting a job was his first priority. He said he followed his brother's footsteps and searched local Chinese newspapers for coded ads aimed at undocumented workers. When he found what he was looking for, Sanchez called a telephone number, was given an address in Chinatown, and on the appointed date, got into a van driven by a stranger. They headed 200 miles north to the Grand China Buffet. He had no clue where he was, Sanchez recalled, but it was a job with food and housing.
At the urging of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, the state Attorney General's Office began investigating the Raynham eatery in August 2010, along with a sister restaurant, the New York Chinese Buffet, located in Somerset.
Investigators found the staff made far below Massachusetts' minimum wage of $8 with no overtime pay — if they were paid at all. Sanchez claimed to be owed some $26,000 in unpaid wages. Another employee, Fidela Martinez, who was 16 at the time, was not paid for more than nine months, even as she worked thousands of hours.
The owners and managers — Xue Ying You, Zhi Hao Zhang, Casidy Lu, Ai Yi Lu, and Ming Kuai Lu — were eventually charged with failure to pay employees minimum wage and failure to pay them in a timely manner, among other charges. The Grand China Buffet was also cited for breaking child labor laws. They were ordered to pay $181,000 in fines, at least some still unpaid. Both restaurants were shuttered.
No criminal or trafficking charges were filed, however. Massachusetts did not pass its antitrafficking law until 2011. And Ai Hui Lu — whom Sanchez and advocates believe is related to the previous management — was granted a liquor license from Raynham selectmen in 2011 for a new restaurant, the Hibachi Sushi Buffet, in the space Grand China once occupied. Sanchez moved on to work at another Chinese buffet. (Repeated attempts to reach all of the owners and managers for comment went unanswered, although some of them have previously denied the charges in media reports.)
Labor advocates and trafficking experts noted the reopening of the restaurant with frustration, explaining more generally that operators are notorious not only for avoiding arrest but for also finding ways to keep operating even after being cited for grotesque abuses. Enforcement is so sporadic, and tolerance is so high, that only the most unlucky violator gets padlocked for good.
There is no way to estimate fully how many workers suffer the same fate as Sanchez and Martinez. But restaurant operators in Minnesota, Wisconsin, California, Texas, and Kentucky have been accused of human trafficking over the past two years. Most often, the offenders were small-scale, ethnic restaurants.
Several laws to protect workers like Sanchez and Martinez are in place. Massachusetts has among the strictest labor regulations in the country, and it has slowly started to prosecute trafficking cases since the law passed three years ago.
More, however, could be done: Enforcement nationally should be more proactive and better funded. The US Department of Labor, for example, is one of the few agencies that routinely trains its inspectors to recognize trafficking victims, but also has only about 1,000 wage and hour investigators to monitor as many as 10.5 million employees at nearly 600,000 restaurants nationwide — in addition to the millions of other workplaces covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Violations are more often unearthed by state or local labor and health code investigators who aren’t necessarily trained to know trafficking —
In Massachusetts, an interagency task force headed by Attorney General Martha Coakley in 2013 recommended a well-funded, worker-led program aimed specifically at labor trafficking to offer comprehensive legal and social services. That proposal should be taken up. Even consistent, coordinated data collection — to better understand how prevalent this problem is — would help.
A good start would be for the Commonwealth to follow the lead of California, which in April enacted a law requiring restaurants that serve alcohol to post public notices in their kitchens explaining slavery and human trafficking, or face stiff penalties.
There’s a role here for customers, too. As long as Americans believe that a lunch out can and should cost less than $5, workers in the food-services industry will be exploited. What went on behind the kitchen doors of the Grand China Buffet will continue elsewhere. The economics of today’s restaurant business, between labor and food costs, are difficult. And when diners find restaurants that are implausibly cheap, they might ask themselves — and their servers — why that might be.
The true cost of cheap egg rolls became grossly apparent at the Grand China Buffet. And Massachusetts — and the rest of America — needs to put down the fork and stop looking the other way.