A former employee of Cary's Neo-China restaurant is accusing the Triangle-based chain of bringing him and his family members from China to work 90 hours a week at less than minimum wage and then firing them after one was injured on the job.
According to a lawsuit filed in Wake County court, Neo-China's parent company, Freshco Inc., sponsored Amu Zheng and his wife and son to come to the United States in 2001. Under immigration law, employers can sponsor someone for a green card if they can offer a full-time position. Once in the country, Zheng alleges, Neo-China's owner Diana Yu and manager Chris Chang told Zheng and his family that they had to work at the restaurant "at whatever terms they imposed"—more than 90 hours a week at less than minimum wage.
Anthony Taibi, Zheng's lawyer, says that before immigrating to the United States, his client worked as a rural fisherman in China; he still speaks only a rural Chinese dialect. With no financial resources in the country, the suit says, the Zheng family was "completely dependent" on their employers.
Taibi says the restaurant fired the entire family after Zheng suffered several on-the job injuries. On Aug. 25, 2004, according to the suit, Zheng fell off the restaurant's roof while fixing an air conditioner in the rain. He tore his rotator cuff and required surgery. Zheng's doctor told him not to work for three months. But Zheng's manager allegedly forced him back to work after one week. Zheng hurt his other shoulder in April 2005, and the two injuries made it hard for him to work.
In September 2005, Chang fired Zheng and his family.
Moreover, Taibi says the restaurant owners told its worker's compensation insurer that Zheng's injury didn't happen on the job. Zheng is permanently injured, Taibi says, "and they need to pay the guy."
Neo-China employees allegedly threatened to have Zheng arrested and deported if, again according to the suit, "he made any trouble" after he was fired. The suit alleges the company had someone go to his family in China and threaten them too. Taibi declined to comment on the nature of those threats.
Defendants Yu and Chang could not be reached for comment; their lawyer, Joseph Propst with the Jordan Price law firm in Raleigh, said, "We're still investigating the claims at this point."
The defendants have until Oct. 23 to respond to the suit.
Taibi says he delayed filing the civil suit for more than a year and tried to settle the matter privately, because, he says, "I liked the food."
Neo-China refused to settle, so Taibi sued the restaurant last month.
Immigrants are part of an informal economy, Taibi says, and employers may treat them unfairly "because they can."
Alison Parker, deputy director for the Human Rights Watch US program, agrees. Parker says she has seen similar isolated cases of forced labor. She says those instances mainly involved diplomats bringing servants from their own countries. Parker called these labor abuses a form of "human trafficking." A spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed that the federal government would consider this a case of human trafficking.
"This is one of the realities of being an immigrant," Parker says.