Labour conditions at some Region Six Chinese eateries a concern By Daniel DaCosta
Stabroek News
February 21, 2002

Working as waitresses, they sweep and clean, wash dishes, operate as cashiers, assist in preparing meals, and are also forced to clean toilets with no running water.

Refusal to clean dirty toilets can lead to disciplinary action against them. In the majority of cases, these chores are performed by one individual.

They work eight hours per day earning between $2,404 and $2,531 per week, bringing them between $9,616 and $10,124 per month. This is the plight of a number of females who are employed by some Chinese restaurants in New Amsterdam and the wider Region Six (East Berbice/Corentyne).

And many of them are single parents. The minimum wage in the Public Service is approximately $19,950 per month with the recent increase granted by government.

Over the years there have been concerns over the sanitary and working conditions at many restaurants operated by Chinese in the town and the region.

According to these employees, their cries for help over the years have fallen on deaf ears and conditions have remained unchanged. A handful of restaurants undertook significant improvement works in preparation for the recent Christmas season. However, Environmental Officer attached to the New Amsterdam Town Council, Steve Chichester says he is still not satisfied with the sanitary conditions at most of the older restaurants.

According to Chichester, he is continuously working to have the owners improve overall sanitary conditions. Attempts to speak with some owners about concerns raised by their employees were thwarted by claims that they could not speak English.

Acknowledging that he was aware of employees being asked to perform the duties of cleaners and waitresses, Chichester said it was an unsafe practice since bacteria could be transmitted by way of the clothing of the employees from the toilets to the food they handle. Additional staff he said should be employed to clean. "This is an area of major concern to us," he told Stabroek News.

At most Chinese restaurants only one person is employed to perform the duties of general worker, waitress and cashier.

However, according to Labour Officer, Ronald Bissoondyal the three positions should be separate and distinct. A waitress, he said, should be paid $2,531 per week according to the salary scale approved by the Committee on Prescribed Minimum Wages chaired by the Chief Labour Officer. A cashier should receive $3,019 per week and a general worker $2,404.

"If they work more than forty and three-quarter (40 3/4) hours per week they should be paid overtime. They should also be granted one day off per week and an additional half-day every alternate week. They should work seven and one-quarter (7 1/4) hours per day with a lunch break of one and one quarter (1 1/4) hours each day."

The labour officer also noted that it is unhygienic for employees who serve food to clean toilets, and another person should be employed to clean. "If one employee is being asked to perform several duties then she should be paid the salary which is highest among the three positions." Bissoondyal added.

According to the labour officer, back in 1994-1995, Chinese restaurant workers were paid public service wages. This decision was subsequently reversed and the Committee on Prescribed Minimum Wages began fixing their wages. The last increase granted to restaurant workers was in 2000.

Touching on the absence of running water in many of the toilets at restaurants, Chichester expressed the view that because of the unavailability of potable water on a 24-hour basis in the township, owners should install overhead tanks. A few, he said, had done so. According to the environmental health officer, the state of many of the kitchens is cause for serious concern to his department.

On the Corentyne similar complaints have been made by employees and health officials. Employees also complain of being asked to work extra hours particularly at nights without any overtime payment. The night shift ends at midnight and public transportation during this period can be a major problem as some employee's live far distances away from their work places. Some have complained about being robbed and sexually molested on their way home. According to some women, on asking for increases because of the rising cost of living they were told by their employers that they are awaiting an announcement by government to grant such increases. The employees point out, however, that they are not government workers and the response from their employers is just another ploy to suppress their wages.