Kinds of Koreans

Rich, Poor, and In-Between

Two separate legal developments last week, taken together, give a glimpse into the diversity within this city's Korean immigrant community, which is sometimes viewed as a monolithic stereotype.

State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced a pact with some two dozen Korean greengrocers, with more to come, who agreed to follow fair labor practices with their mainly Latino employees. A prominent picketing campaign in recent years publicized the serious wage and hour violations among many of the city's grocers, some 80 percent of which are Korean-owned. The greengrocer conflict seemed to cement a stereotype—the only kind of portrayal Koreans tend to receive when they get a few seconds in movies or on television—of Koreans as small-business owners, and not very nice ones at that.

But also last week a Korea-born laborer named Keun-Jae Moon announced he had won $351,201 plus interest in back pay and damages from a group of hotel and supermarket corporations owned by fellow countryman Joon Gab Kwon and family. Moon had served as an all-around maintenance man at Kwon's midtown Manhattan Stanford Hotel and an apartment building Kwon owned, and he had also worked in a supermarket owned by Kwon's brother.

Moon, 57, who is married with children, labored an average of 90 hours per week between 1992 and 1998, sleeping for a time in the hotel's boiler room, but never received overtime pay.

A daily newspaper reporter asked Moon why he had remained with the Kwons. "No American would," the reporter said. Moon was matter-of-fact, saying through an interpreter, "All I know is to take care of the kind of work that I've done." Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which backed Moon's suit, explained later that those who lack a formal education and English skills have few other options.

"But it's important that all low-wage workers understand that they have rights under the labor law," Fung said. That's the argument the greengrocer workers used. The Kwon brothers, who own Han Ah Reum supermarkets—something like the Food Emporium in the city's Korean world—must be wealthy beyond most greengrocers' wildest dreams. Yet many Koreans, like Moon, have more in common with the grocers' Latino workers than with the owners (as the presence of Asian activists on picket lines suggested). The two Kwon employees who testified under oath to clinch Moon's case were Victor Sanchez and Victor Tejada.

 
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