Six months after allegations against Gourmet Heaven first came to light, boycotting the store has become near cliché.
But since August, working conditions have, in many ways, deteriorated. While workers are now ostensibly being paid minimum wage — a result of a Department of Labor investigation — they have told the News they continue to operate under intolerable circumstances.
Gourmet Heaven’s owner Chung Cho is now forcing employees to work harder, while cutting their hours of pay, according to interviews with workers. They labor under constant video camera surveillance; are forced to stand for up to 12 hours on end; and live in an environment of fear where being suspected of disloyalty is punished. Four workers were recently fired, some claim in retaliation for their cooperation with the Department of Labor. While workers held a counterprotest to the boycott two weeks ago, an employee told the News that he was pressured to join and that the protest included workers from Gourmet Heaven’s Providence location.
The workers’ subjugation extends beyond workplace violations. Since Gourmet Heaven employees depend on their employer for housing — they live in cramped quarters that have been subsidized by Cho — losing their jobs would render them homeless.
As conditions worsen, the Department of Labor investigation has proved inadequate. The Department demanded that Cho issue two years of back pay, but the amount he is required to distribute totals only $2,800 per worker per year — a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands workers have lost through wage theft, given that some have worked at Gourmet Heaven for over 15 years.
Worse still, the Department of Labor was unable to address the allegations of workplace abuse. The law, in this case, seems feebly equipped to protect the people that are most vulnerable. The only remaining path to justice is through direct action on the part of our University, which serves as both Gourmet Heaven’s landlord and clientele.
First, University Properties should pressure Cho to ameliorate employee conditions with the threat of eviction. University Properties is complicit in mistreatment at Gourmet Heaven. It has only been willing thus far to issue a vague statement, promising that it “will not renew the lease of any tenant not in complete compliance with the labor laws.” But we cannot wait until July 2016, when Gourmet Heaven’s lease expires, to address these violations.
Administrators must ensure that the many allegations against Gourmet Heaven — including workplace intimidation, cash payments and deplorable housing conditions — are fully investigated. And should any allegations be substantiated, University Properties has the legal basis, and the moral obligation, to terminate the lease immediately.
Second, we call for a continued protest and boycott of Gourmet Heaven, both to pressure Cho as well as University Properties. For students to boycott a business on Yale’s property sends a clear message to administrators that we believe something is wrong. And as Gourmet Heaven is our only late-night food option, the boycott sends a message directly to Cho: It’s not that we prefer a different sandwich, but that we will not stomach his unjust labor practices.
The approach we take toward Gourmet Heaven matters beyond this specific case. We have little power to change wage theft on a national level, but we can set the precedent that our community will not tolerate open allegations of worker abuse going unchecked. We do not know the scope of labor injustice in New Haven, or even within University-owned properties. But acting on this one case, we can establish how the University should act when allegations of worker mistreatment arise in the future.
The main opposition to the boycott is that it will cause workers to lose their jobs. But even a well-executed boycott would not force Cho to close the business immediately. With four successful store locations, he would have the time and the option to alleviate the financial pressure by improving working conditions. If Gourmet Heaven were to close, it would not be from the boycott but by Cho’s own doing.
As a united group of consumers, we have both vocal and financial leverage. Boycott Gourmet Heaven, but also send emails to Yale’s Director of New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander, or circulate a petition urging a more comprehensive investigation of the store’s violations.
It is a rare circumstance that we are both aware of a store’s workplace violations and have the collective ability to influence change. In this case, Yale University students form the vast majority of Gourmet Heaven’s customers. We know the facts. Now we have the responsibility to act.