On the second floor of a building on Eighth Street, in the heart of Koreatown, easy walking distance to Dong Il Jang and sniffing distance to the rotisserie chickens slowly rotating on spits at Pollo a la Brasa, are the cozy offices of the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA), a nonprofit that fights for the rights of low-wage workers. Alexandra Suh, its executive director, has led the organization since 2011.
A child of Korean immigrants, Suh grew up in San Francisco. She moved to New York to earn her Ph.D. at Columbia University, all the while actively involved in the Asian and Pacific Islander communities. She moved to L.A. in 2002 to teach literature and cultural studies at Scripps College but, missing the world outside the classroom, volunteered at KIWA. She became a staff member in 2009 and eventually took the reins.
KIWA tackles a range of issues, including immigration reform and affordable housing, but it is perhaps foremost a workers rights center. Since 1992, it has helped workers recover unpaid wages from unscrupulous employers, a social and economic justice issue that Suh points out is especially pronounced in Los Angeles.
“L.A. is the wage-theft capital of the country,” Suh says, quietly, firmly. Sitting in one of KIWA's meeting rooms as her phone lights up with a stream of email and text notifications, she exudes a striking combination of serenity and determination; when she speaks, you can't help but listen. “Low-wage workers lose $26 million a week to wage theft. That's almost $1.4 billion a year.”
Which brings us to Urasawa. One of Suh and KIWA's most recent victories came last year in a wage claim made against Urasawa, the famed Beverly Hills sushi restaurant, where a tab for two can easily top four digits.
After being fired from the restaurant, Heriberto Zamora came to KIWA for assistance in filing a wage claim against the chef and owner.
His claim opened the door to a much broader investigation into the restaurant, and ultimately the state labor commissioner ordered Urasawa to pay more than $65,000 in unpaid wages and penalties. Among other things, the state found that three employees, told to work longer than 10 hours per day without overtime, were owed $38,585.
As Suh sees it, this victory for Zamora, a Koreatown resident, sends a message that goes far beyond the neighborhood where KIWA is headquartered. “Sometimes, when people hear Koreatown, it sounds like a very small, provincial, tiny corner – but it's the densest neighborhood in Los Angeles,” she says.
And the large population of low-wage workers who live in Koreatown is employed in industries throughout the city.
“This neighborhood is connected to the regional economy,” she says. “It's part of the engine for the entire L.A. region.”
Similarly, Suh views her work within the larger picture. “For me,” she says, “it's really an honor to be able to work alongside so many workers and advocates who are trying to create change in our workplaces, our neighborhoods, our city.”