Chinese female massage workers speak out

Location

168 Market

1421 E Valley Boulevard
Alhambra , CA 91801 United States

A banner with Chinese characters that read “stop sexual harassment, keep our pride” covered the four women’s faces. Just removed from the bustling crowd at the Asian restaurants, herb shops, and grocery at 168 Market in Alhambra, they stood last spring in a silent protest. “These masseuses alleged to have been sexually harassed by their massage parlor owner,” the Chinese-language newspaper World Journal reported. “They urged legal action against the crime and called upon former masseuses with the same experience to sue the parlor owner.”

The protest almost did not happen. The workers said that despite years of alleged sexual and physical harassment, they were fearful of speaking up publicly against their employer and unaware of organizations and city agencies that could help them. “Some of the abused masseuses thought about taking legal action in 2005,” Cici Yang, a masseuse and organizer of the protest, said in Chinese. “But they didn’t speak English and didn’t know whom to contact. It was difficult, and they finally gave up.”

Cici Yang, masseuse and organizer of the protest | Photo by Mingshi DiIn a lawsuit filed in April in Los Angeles Superior Court, Yang and two other masseuses claimed Tai Chang Du, the owner of Oriental Massage in Pasadena, groped their “breasts and buttocks,” denied tips and required 13-hour work days six to seven days a week, and threatened their lives if they spoke up against him, quoting him as saying that, “In America, Chinese people are like chickens. No one cares if they are killed.” Du did not return multiple calls seeking a response, but has denied the charges in Chinese-language newspaper articles. Yang, nonetheless, stands by her story and asserts the three women in the lawsuit were not the only ones who were victims. “Many harassed and exploited masseuses have been threatened not to speak up,” she said.

The fear of taking action against abuse that Yang described is common among Chinese low-wage workers, according to organizers and lawyers familiar with the community. They maintain that lack of English and ignorance of legal protections, in particular, contribute to the vulnerability to exploitation. “Language and cultural barriers are important to consider for Asian American and Pacific Islander workers,” said Wenli Jen, prevention program director for Pacific Clinics. “We need to raise awareness about workers’ rights in our communities.” Another source of vulnerability is the intense competition for entry-level jobs like massage parlors or restaurant work. “Because many other Chinese workers are willing to accept a low wage, it’s very hard for them to fight for the salary or ask for an increase,” Paulina Lau, who works for Catholic Charities to find jobs for Chinese asylum seekers and refugees, said. “Even if they realize they are being exploited by low-wage, there is little they can do about it because many other people are waiting for that position if she or he decided to leave.” 

Cici Yang's back injury resulting from the alleged attackAn accepted employment structure of the massage industry — independent contractors paid based on the number of clients they serve – is also a problem according to the women’s lawyer, Long Liu. He maintains that when an unscrupulous employer is involved it gives massage parlor owners ground to exploit workers unaware of their rights. Since wages are customer-based under the contract, instead of hourly-based, some owners do not pay masseuses for cleaning work and punish them by not assigning them any clients. In the lawsuit, Liu alleges on behalf of the women that Du “thought as new migrants to this country of lower socio-economic status, they would be ignorant of their rights, and not fight back.”

But the women did take action. Cici Yang said that after enduring sexual harassment, when Du hit her she reached her limit. "If he didn't use physical violence on me, I would have let it pass just like the other masseuses did,” she said. “But he beat me and I couldn't work for a long time due to the injury…I really couldn't stand it any more." Yang first went to the Pasadena Police Department, she says, but left without filing a report because she was discouraged because they did not have a Chinese-speaking officer on duty.  Local police departments provide a 24-hour phone translation service, but have a limited number of bilingual officers. The Pasadena Police Department said it has one police officer for bilingual service in Chinese. (The department may have other officers who speak Chinese, but only one is paid to provide bilingual service.)Serving Alhambra’s large Asian community,the Alhambra Police Department has seven sworn officers and two civilian employees who are fluent in Chinese.

Unsure of how to contact local law enforcement authorities, Yang and her husband, Tom Wang, found a Chinese lawyer. Together, they convinced several other women who had had the same experience to join them in a lawsuit against Du. "They were scared at first, but I told them that I had already found a lawyer who could help us,” she said. “I also said to them that if no legal action is taken against him, Du will hurt more people.” One of the women returned to the Pasadena Police Department and filed a complaint. Wang created a hotline for abused massage workers, and after the protest that World Journal reported on the calls started to come. “I got many phone calls from masseuses who worked for Du before,” Yang said. “They told me that they even tried to write a letter to City Hall. But they gave up in the end due to language barriers.” Wang, who was unaware of advocacy organizations such as the Asian Pacific American Legal Center that could offer assistance, believes it would be very helpful to have a Chinese massage industry association that could provide specific guidance and legal counseling. The date for the lawsuit to be heard in court is still not set, but Wang maintains that is only half the battle.  “The situation can be improved only if there is more attention and awareness,” Wang said. “We are not just trying to get compensated. We need to let these exploiters know that their behavior deserves severe punishment.”

Where to go for help:

 

  • Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) 
  • 1145 Wilshire Blvd, 2nd Floor
  • Los Angeles, CA 90017
  • http://www.apalc.org/
  •  
  • Legal Hotlines
  • Main: 213.977.7500 
  • Chinese: 800.520.2356
  • Khmer: 800.867.3126
  • Korean: 800.867.3640
  • Vietnamese: 800.267.7395

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