By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications
UCLA International Institute, June 15, 2022 — UCLA professor Jennifer Jihye Chun recently brought her spring quarter 2022 course, “Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Labor Issues,” to a close.
A sociologist, Chun is a permanent member of the teaching faculty in the International Institute and has appointments in Asian American studies and labor studies. She becomes chair of the institute’s International Development Studies Program in July.
Her course (listed in Asian American and labor studies) examines the labor challenges encountered by AAPI workers in diverse local industries of the Los Angeles region. Through readings, discussions and community fieldwork, students learn that the imperatives of a global competitive economy impact labor conditions in both the Global South and Global North. This past quarter, a significant group of International Institute students took the course.
“Students are surprised to learn that sweatshop labor practices occur here in the United States, not just in the third world,” said Chun.
“Workers in Los Angeles who work in garment factories, restaurants, hotels, homecare and other low-wage sectors encounter chronic wage theft and discriminatory working conditions in informal and precarious jobs that too often violate their basic labor and human rights.”
Course mandates community projects
Perhaps the most significant curriculum component of the course is experiential. Students are required to engage in a group project with a community organization that directly support Asian American workers in Los Angeles in industries that primarily rely on low-paid and often unauthorized immigrant labor.
The community partners with whom students worked included the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, the Pilipino Workers Center and the Thai Community Development Center.
“The course provides a rare opportunity for students to learn directly from labor and community organizations that are doing the hard work of changing policy and building the capacity of grassroots communities to bring about progressive social change from the ground up,” said Chun.
Community engagement projects ranged from political canvassing and phone banking to social media support and collaborative event planning, including a celebration of 30 years of “Asian American Workers Rising” and the 25th anniversary commemoration of the 1995 Thai El Monte garment workers’ fight against industrial slavery and labor trafficking.
“Students learn the crucial importance of managing different schedules, as well as adapting to different communications styles and organizational practices,” commented Chun.
“In their presentations, all of the students mentioned that working with community organizations required a much higher level of coordination and communication skills than they had initially anticipated, particularly the need to listen, adapt to changing circumstances and improve their ability to communicate clearly and effectively.”
One of the benefits of the community projects are the networks that the students develop with their peers and community affiliates. Students also talked about the opportunity to develop meaningful friendships with fellow students, something that they were deprived of during the days of remote learning during the pandemic.
Class participants described memorable conversations they had while knocking on doors and meaningful connections they made with community partners. Some students will continue maintain those connections even after the class ends, such as global studies major Camille Ma, who will go on to volunteer with Thai CDC on federal government labor trafficking initiatives.
Lessons from community engagement
The student group* that worked with the Thai Community Development Center (Thai CDC) organized a public event at UCLA, “Remembering El Monte.” The event featured speakers from that organization and the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, Thai survivors of the El Monte trafficking case and L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis (former U.S. Secretary of Labor, 2009–2013).
At the time of the 1995 raid on a squalid apartment complex in El Monte where trafficked Thai workers were living and working in slave conditions making clothes for name-brand manufacturers, Solis was serving as a California State Assemblywoman who represented El Monte.
At their presentation, the students identified their project with coalition building and raised the idea that student activism can play a role in both social justice initiatives and in higher education. Hearing from El Monte survivors (most of whom have since become U.S. citizens) gave the students a “3-D” understanding of the trafficking situation, they said, and allowed them to query sources about the original events.
The Thai CDC team concluded by inviting their peers to think about future forms of learning and collective action that could be effective at the high school and college levels.
Another group of students** did phone banking for the California Health Nails Salon Collaborative (CHNSC), a coalition of community and research organizations that advocates for policy changes to improve the health and safety conditions of nail salon workers. The students volunteered for three-hour phone banking shifts that sought to raise the awareness of Vietnamese immigrant salon workers about initiatives to improve working conditions in the industry and combat Asian hate and harassment, thus encouraging them to vote.
Although the work was grueling — made more difficult by the fact that the UCLA students were conducting calls in English and not Vietnamese — the project helped the team develop skills in empathy, communication, social awareness and reflection, said international development studies major Yiming Xiang.
“Don’t be discouraged,” he said to his team. “The issues [we were calling about] may be new and uncomfortable for the community. But we are fostering social change.”
Yet another team*** worked with the Pilipino Workers Center (PWC) Direct Action Team on a campaign to help Pilipino caregivers working in senior care facilities win back wages from Adat Shalom Board & Care, Inc.
In 2018, the California Labor Commissioner cited Adat Shalom for $8.5 million in wage theft related to under- and non-payment of live-in Pilipino workers at their facilities. In 2021, the Labor Commission found that $8 million was legally owed to the workers. The monies, however, remain unpaid.
The UCLA student team worked with PWC to create a pamphlet to educate the Pilipino workers about the facts of exploitation and their rights, laying the groundwork for future organizing. In their presentation, the Bruin students reflected that they had developed better communication, teamwork and coordination skills, learned to be flexible and found the confidence to speak up and share ideas in meetings.
A student with a double major in global studies and sociology shared, “Although we didn’t end up [participating in a public action], the weekly meetings and the informational presentation we attended at the PWC pushed me to get more comfortable being outside of my comfort zone and adapt to changes.
“For my whole life I was always that one person in class that loved speaking up and sharing my opinion, and the pandemic took a lot of those abilities away from me. So it was really rejuvenating almost to be able to talk to people outside of my social circle face-to-face.”
Some members of the student teams**** with APAPA did have an opportunity to participate in a direct action in solidarity with workers — in this case, workers who lost their jobs at the Terranea Resort and Spa in Ranchos Palos Verdes.
UNITE Here Local 11 and APALA have been supporting the efforts of hotel workers to fight unjust labor practices since the 582-acre luxury hotel opened in 2009. Multiple class action suits and legal actions have been launched over the past decade regarding unpaid wages, the denial of meal and rest breaks, failure to rehire laid-off hospitality workers during COVID, sexual harassment allegations (part of #MeToo Terranea) and Terranea’s use of the State Department’s J-1 Cultural and Exchange Visa program as a source of low-paid migrant labor.
Although most students found the community engagement projects difficult, Chun said their reflections on what they had learned often revealed the value of what they had learned.
“Students see how hard their community partners work, and how much work it takes to enact even small changes. I think it humbled them, but it also showed them that in order to be idealistic, you have to understand how people on the ground are trying to change things,” she reflected.
“Hopefully, it’ll get them thinking about these issues, because it one thing to point out what is not working and analyze why, and quite another thing to be part of a movement trying to actually change things.”
*The Thai CDC student group consisted of Yondonjmats Jigjidsuren, Camille Ya, Sharri Wei, Shamita and Madi Tanguqy. (IDS and Global studies student names are bolded.)
*The CNHSC phone banking group was comprised of Linh Doan Vo, Aimee Benitez, Yiming Xiang, Cherina Dominguez, Olivia Lam, Pauline Paulino and Allene Therese de Castro.
***The members of the PWC Direct Action team were Madeline Malin, Audrie Chan, Sam Solemnidad, Anna Mangafas, Jennis Kang, Christine Sohn, Kaitlyn Esperon and Carolyn Hong.
****The members of the student teams who worked with APAPLA were Sahar Campbell, Angeles Ochoa, Alana Malika and Nina Vukcevic, as well as Mary Entoma, Lin Huang, Eva Kwiatkowski, Edgar Perez, Riya Shivanand, Nicklas Singh and Victor Xie.