- Associated Press - Friday, November 13, 2015

CHICAGO (AP) - Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office announced a federal lawsuit Friday against three Chinatown employment agencies and two suburban restaurants, alleging wide-ranging wage and civil rights violations of immigrant and Latino workers in the Chicago area.

The complaint alleges the agencies sought out Latinos for employment in buffet-style restaurants, which paid as little as $3.50 an hour and discriminated against the workers based on race and national origin. The agencies and restaurants are also accused of housing employees in “abysmal” conditions: One suburban establishment placed up to 15 employees in an apartment with a single bathroom and no furniture.

The alleged practices go back to at least 2010 and involve workers who washed dishes, cleaned floors, prepared food and maintained buffets.

“These employment agencies essentially acted as central supply houses for a buffet restaurant industry seeking to profit from illegal and exploitative wages and conditions of employment,” according to the lawsuit filed Thursday.

Madigan alleges violations of the U.S. Civil Rights Act, Illinois Human Rights Act and the state’s minimum wage law.

Owners of Xing Ying Employment Agency and Jiao’s Employment Agency, Inc., are named in the lawsuit. They didn’t immediately have comment on Friday when reached by phone. A phone listing for the third named agency, Chinatown Agencia de Empleo, couldn’t be located.

Messages left for the owners of Hibachi Grill Buffet in Elk Grove Village and Hibachi Sushi Buffet in Cicero weren’t immediately returned on Friday.

Madigan said the employment agencies collectively set low wages that fell far below the state’s $8.25 minimum wage. The agencies charged commissions and fees of up to $220 for each worker referral, along with paying for lodging and transportation, which were typically deducted from worker paychecks. The workers often put in up to 14 hours a day and worked six days a week without official meal breaks, according to the lawsuit.

The agencies also allegedly made explicit references to race and national origin in newspaper advertisements, in one case saying they’d be able to provide “the best quality Mexican staff.”

“The employment agencies and restaurants in this lawsuit are exploiting workers through discrimination and inhumane conditions, violating both their civil rights and the state’s wage laws,” Madigan said in a statement. “Their conduct will not be tolerated in this state.”

The lawsuit seeks to recover lost wages, among other penalties.

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Follow Sophia Tareen at https://twitter.com/sophiatareen

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