Human Rights at the Airport

           WHEN CHAO YANG and his family moved to Minnesota from Laos in 1981, he found work as a janitor with an airline food catering company. In 1987, the company promoted him to assistant manager. Yang spoke both English and Lao, which made him a valuable resource for a company that employed nearly 250 Southeast Asians. But over the years he grew tired of being a company man: According to Yang, white supervisors and managers routinely harassed, verbally abused, and discriminated against Asian workers. Two weeks ago, Yang and several co-workers filed a human rights violations lawsuit.

           Although Yang was terminated from the company in 1994--wrongfully, he maintains--he is nonetheless the official spokesperson for the five recent plaintiffs. During the course of his 13-year employment, the company changed hands several times. For a large chunk of the 1980s, Marriot In-Flite Food Service owned it. Marriot sold the company to Caterair International in 1991, which in turn sold it to LSG Lufthansa Services Sky Chef in 1995. But throughout the years, he says, the treatment of Asians remained consistently poor. "They would throw away our food and tell us to eat American food," he says. "They would make sexual comments to Asian females when they would bend over to lift something off the floor," he claims. And Yang maintains that his compatriots, unlike other employees, were denied training that would have helped them move up in the company.

           Yang and others also claim that in 1992, the company removed the door to the men's bathroom--ostensibly, he claims, to discourage workers from taking breaks. According to a statement by another plaintiff, that left the toilet in easy view of other workers: "Many employees would have to suffer holding their waste/urine for the entire duration of the workday; male employees would urinate or defecate on themselves; and/or Asian male employees as a last desperate measure would use the toilets by placing their aprons over their heads so that they could not be seen by other employees passing by the door of the bathroom," his complaint reads.

           There have also been complaints about the company's response to Asian workers' medical conditions. According to plaintiffs' attorney Jesse Gant III, Yang's wife, Nou Thao Yang, suffered a back injury in 1989 that was aggravated by the company's subsequent refusal to give her the light duty recommended by a doctor. And according to a complaint filed by Zouafong Lee, he was terminated when he missed work due to an ulcer. Lee landed in the hospital for four days in July 1992, and his son phoned the company as Lee does not speak English. Lee claims that his supervisor refused to accept his son's notice and demanded to speak to Lee himself. Despite documentation, Lee was fired; the company maintained his absence constituted a "no-show."

           Yer Vang, another longtime employee, similarly maintains that the company refused to accommodate an ankle injury she sustained while on the job in 1992. Relations between Vang and the company further deteriorated this summer when, she claims, a white female employee assaulted her. According to her complaint, Vang's car was towed from the company parking lot on July 2. She was to attend a meeting with Gant and the other plaintiffs that afternoon, and Vang alleges that her supervisors had been tipped off. While she acknowledges that her car was parked illegally, she maintains that the cars surrounding hers were not similarly targeted. When she approached the woman in question for assistance, Vang alleges that the woman called her a "dog," told her she was "ugly and dirty," and locked Vang in a room. When the woman returned to find her on the phone, Vang claims the woman swung at her, kicked her on the legs, and grabbed her blouse, tearing off the buttons. Vang says she then ran from the room.

           LSG public relations spokesperson Marty Heires says it isn't true: "We sent a human resources manager [to the Bloomington office] this week, and she interviewed 15 employees who were near Vang at the time she alleges the incident occurred, and all of them denied witnessing any abuse by [the alleged assailant]." (Calls by City Pages to Seyfarth, Shaw, Fairweather & Geraldson, the Chicago law firm representing the company, were not returned.) As to the remaining allegations, he declined to respond as he says the company has not yet received the complaints. He insists, however, LSG/Sky Chef will respond swiftly.

 
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