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Attorney Schools Chinese-Owned Businesses on U.S. Labor Norms
The National Law Journal
Attorney Evie Jeang, whose office is in a region of Los Angeles where a significant number of Chinese immigrants have settled, has witnessed a growing number of lawsuits filed against companies run by these newcomers. Jeang, founder of Ideal Legal Group in Alhambra, Calif., told The National Law Journal that most of these business owners are unaware of California's strict labor laws and protections for workers. Many assume that undocumented immigrants lack the same rights that other workers enjoy.
The remarks below have been edited for length and clarity.
NLJ: Tell me a little bit about your firm. What is Ideal Legal Group?
Evie Jeang: Our firm is very diverse. Everybody who works in this firm must speak another language. Our clients are mostly immigrants. We deal with the Hispanic community and largely the Asian community. So [our attorneys] must speak Chinese or Spanish. Some attorneys speak Cantonese, some Mandarin.
NLJ: What type of law does your firm specialize in?
Jeang: The majority of what we do is international divorces and international business. More marriages occur internationally. Once you increase marriages internationally, the sad thing that is you specialize in international divorces. When we handle divorces, a lot of [the couples] have factories in China or houses in the United States. Those clients like our legal service, so once they open a company in the U.S., they want to stay on with our attorneys to help them operate the business.
NLJ: What types of laws are these business owners accused of violating?
Jeang: A lot of times they're violating labor laws. Shoe factories are some of those -- the factories in China are very cheap, so a lot of them make shoes in China and import here. There are a lot of apparel companies -- all in the fashion industry. And once they're here, they have a small office.
NLJ: What type of labor laws are we talking about?
Jeang: They don't know minimum wage, the meal breaks; they don't know the overtime or rest periods. And that's where we come in. We are in-house counsel to make sure they comply with the local rules. Here, in America, we definitely are protecting labor and workers more. We have unions. There is no union in China. For those recent immigrants who open a business in the garment industry or factories here, they don't know that a lot of workers have rights. They push them to work. They don't understand they need to take a break or meal period, and that if you make them work 10 hours you have to pay them overtime.
As for workers' comp, they don't understand why it's required. A lot of them are trying to figure out -- if workers are not doing hard labor and are just in the office -- why do they need workers' comp insurance? Those are things I have to teach them. Another thing about workers' comp is that it's a no-fault system. A lot of times they'll say, "I didn't do anything. She just tripped. Why should I pay for his or her injury?"
NLJ: How do cultural differences play a role in creating these disputes?
Jeang: In China, somehow they don't believe in putting things in writing. For them, it's based on relationships. A lot of times, they're making deals by shaking hands. And a lot of times, businesses are connected through family, generation after generation. When they come here, you have to tell them: "Whatever you tell the employee how you'll pay them, or make a contract with another company, it has to be in writing."
Another thing is that when you are fighting over contract disputes in the United States, the court can only govern on the contract terms in English. When the contract is in Chinese, you also have to get a translator to translate the documents. A lot of times, the translation has lost the true meaning of it. In Chinese, one word can have a lot of meanings. Unless you translate the exact meaning, you can interpret it in different ways.
NLJ: I see your firm specializes in immigration issues. Do issues surrounding undocumented immigrants come up?
Jeang: They always ask me what's going to happen when an illegal worker gets hurt. They'll say, "She's an illegal alien. Do I have to be responsible?" I tell them that, under labor law, it doesn't matter if the worker's here legally or not. They deserve to be paid overtime; they still have rights to be protected. You're not going to work some guy to death. If they get injured at your factory, at your company, workers' compensation will cover it. It doesn't matter the status. A lot of times they'll hire them because they'll think, "I can pay them less under the table."
NLJ: What do you do to educate these business owners?
Jeang: Education is very important, and that's the reason we do a lot of seminars. We do radio interviews. More and more people are doing business here. If they understand the labor system here, they'll protect more workers.