At Korean-owned Super H Mart in Fairfax, where Hispanic workers bag groceries and Korean employees run the tills, a window into the increasingly diverse and complex business landscape of the Washington region can be seen through the store’s 10 Rules For A Happy Workplace.
Among them: No rude language toward non-Korean staff. No touching or pointing—a rule aimed at Hispanic workers. When at a communication standoff, call the company’s hotline for a translation in Spanish or Korean.
The rules, posted on signs around the supermarket in Spanish and Korean, have helped ease sometimes tense relations between the 70 Hispanic and 35 Korean employees, brought together even as cultures and languages separate them.
In this region’s booming economy, where Koreans own about 10,000 businesses, including dry cleaners, liquor stores and grocers, and Hispanics make up one of the region’s largest labor pools, the two fast-growing groups have forged an unexpected although uneasy economic alliance.
In the Washington area, Koreans make up the largest category of Asian-owned firms. The number of Korean-owned businesses in the region grew by 21 percent between 1997 and 2002, according to the latest Census Bureau figures. In a tight labor market, with unemployment around 3 percent, these business owners have turned to Hispanic workers to bag the groceries and stock shelves, reserving the cashier and top manager jobs for Koreans.
Ricardo Garcia, 34, complains he wasn’t paid fully by a Korean contractor. Fermin Soto, a 42-year-old immigrant from Mexico, said he had similar problems with a different contractor, adding that the Korean builder spoke down to Hispanic workers.
The stories have made Ronald Tobar, who hasn’t worked for a Korean employer, wary.
“I’m a little afraid of working for them,” said Tobar, a native of Guatemala. “I hear they are aggressive and strict and give the worst jobs to Hispanics.”
Such perceptions exacerbate tensions between the groups, said Daniel Choi, a lawyer for the Virginia Justice Center, a legal advocacy group for immigrants that mainly represents Hispanics. Many of the workplace problems Choi encounters while working on behalf of Hispanic immigrants against Korean employees are grievances like unpaid wages that have nothing to do with race or culture. Yet perceptions of ethnic and racial biases often complicate matters.
When Thomas Yoon helped open the Super H Mart store in Fairfax in 2001, he noticed that some older Koreans, raised in the Confucian Korean culture where relationships are dictated by hierarchy and age, were offended that their Hispanic co-workers were tapping them on the shoulder to get their attention. To the Koreans, the gesture was disrespectful. To the Hispanic workers, the shoulder tap was simply a means of communication and signaled familiarity and comfort among the workers.
In order to communicate with his staff, James “Jaime” Han, whose cleaning business employs 62 Hispanic workers at $7 an hour, took two years of Spanish lessons from Young Kil Cho, a pastor and member of the Good Spoon. It is a religious group based in Northern Virginia whose mission has become to bridge the cultural divide between Korean employers and their Hispanic workers.
Gerardo Avila, a native of Mexico, says learning a few phrases in Korean could give him a leg up among the day laborer crowd that gathers on the Shirlington corner each day. Numerous Korean subcontractors come to hire workers to put up drywall, lay down wood floors and fit roof shingles, Avila said.
“I need to do anything to get their attention,” said 35-year-old Avila, grasping a handout of Korean and English phrases such as “I want $12 an hour” and “I have experience.”
Korean businesses, which tend to be labor intensive and have low margins, will continue to need Hispanic immigrants to grow, said Dae Young Kim, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park. He added that Korean business owners often feel that Hispanics “also have a sort of immigrant drive that would make them hard workers.”