The Fear Factor inside a Thai Restaurant: Corporate Culture Bias and Criminal Conduct by Christopher G. Moore

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A Thai living in Boulder, Colorado was sent to jail for one year and a day for various criminal violations connected with his restaurant business. He was released on one million dollar bail and told to report to prison in 15 days.

It wasn’t one law that he broke in the United States. He managed to break a bunch of laws. And looking at the charges, knowing how things work in Thailand, I have a feeling this guy may not have seen all this bad news train coming at him. He may have suffered from a corporate cultural bias that blinkered him to the reality of the new culture where he was doing business.

He should have seen his bias left him vulnerable. That is true of all of us. We assume our cultural setting applies everywhere. They don’t. I have a couple of explanations as to why he may have been caught by surprise.

As every country has a distinct culture, the nature of crime is to cut out a cultural niche. Corporate culture comes from the underlying culture. Like Siamese twins they are joined. And the cultural aspect of business can be used to detect the kind of crimes that the authorities seek to deter, and the kind of criminal behavior that rarely attracts attention. Like a good wine, many of cultural aspects that are building blocks for our mental understanding of ‘wrong’ don’t travel well. In other words, commercial conduct or activity that might be overlooked in one culture becomes a major criminal investigation in another. The problem arises when someone from one culture carries on as if he remains in his home culture. That road leads to a criminal investigation, arrest, fines, prison sentence, and in this Thai man’s case, deportation.

When you come from a place where restaurants, factories, vendors and the like have a large number of illegal or undocumented workers, and this becomes part of how the economy functions, you can start to get the idea that exploiting workers is the normal way of doing business. As most everyone else is doing it, if you don’t, then your business competitors will eat you lunch, along with breakfast and dinner.

Cultural bias, like politics, is local.

The US authorities, however, take a dim view of worker exploitation. Saving exploited immigrants explored by other immigrants is one of those easy feel-good actions that almost everyone agrees is a good thing. There ought to be a sign in American international airports: Don’t exploit workers. Not that anyone would take such a message seriously as most people who work for a living feel exploited. However exploitation is legally defined in the States. There are laws and enforcement agencies looking to make examples. When a Thai businessman decides to set up a chain of restaurants, he’s likely going to staff and run it the best way he knows: and what he knows comes from having been immersed in Thai business culture.

Here’s what happened to the Thai in Denver, Colorado. He ran a string of Thai and Japanese restaurants in Boulder, Louisville, and Broomfield. The restaurants were called Siamese Plate, Sumidas, and Siamese Plate On The Go. What did he do wrong?

According to newspaper reports, Boulder restaurateur going to prison for exploiting illegal workers – The Denver Post the Thai restaurant owner filed false immigration applications and harbored illegal aliens, required all of his Thai workers to enter into two-year employment contracts. The contracts apparently included fees and monetary penalties, which allowed him to deduct thousands of dollars. He paid workers “under-the-table” and deducted fees from their checks.

He ordered his Thai employees to work between 26 and 32 hours of overtime weekly, without paying overtime wages, and kept two sets of payroll books to conceal records from the tax authorities. In other words, he was running his business as if he’d never left Thailand. There is little in this list of complaints that would surprise anyone who has looked at the restaurant businesses operating in Thailand. It seems almost normal. There’s nothing out of the ordinary in what he did in staffing his restaurants. Of course many Thai restaurants in Thailand aren’t exploiting their workers But let’s say there are a number of restaurants that likely have a record not too different from this Boulder operation.

As the workers came from Thailand, it is likely that most of them thought it was normal, too. They probably communicated in Thai, ate Thai food, watched pirated Thai soap operas from Thai TV in their spare time (didn’t seem to be much of that). The illusion must have been quite widespread that they were still mentally in Thailand. It must have been some meddling American good doer with a different sense of ‘normal’ that looked into the matter and convinced the Thai employees that they had been exploited. That they had a solid case against their employer.

“A what?”

“A legal case, a cause of action.”

“And that means what?”

“Testify against your boss and we’ll get you a green card and money in a lawsuit.”

“That would be dangerous.”

“He will throw him out of the country. You will be saved. He can’t touch you.”

This looks like an old battle waged between fear and greed. But it is tilted in favor of the employees. This wasn’t Bangkok. It was Boulder, Colorado. And hired thugs to convince disgruntled staff that they are causing a problem are more difficult to arrange. Or more likely, pressure by friends and family to stick out would have kept the employees in the kitchen and dining area. None of those factors appear in this case. That makes the fear and doubt far less and the temptation of going for the gold much greater. Employees in America simply operate under a different set of fears than those in Thailand.

The Thai business owner must have discovered that he lacked a patron to smooth over things with the authorities. His employees weren’t fearful. They weren’t going to accord him the traditional respect (fear and awe) of a boss. They were going to help a legal system. And apparently the owner saw the odds were stacked against him and copped a plea. Finally, it must have hit him that things don’t quite work in Denver the way they do in Bangkok.

With no patron to find a compromise and no reason why the workers should fear or respect him, the Thai owner pleaded guilty to multiple felony charges. He was sentenced in federal court to 366 days in prison for exploiting workers, harboring illegal aliens and failing to pay taxes. He will be kicked out the United States once he’s finished serving his sentence. It doesn’t quite end there. The convicted owner according to the Denver Post Boulder restaurateur going to prison for exploiting illegal workers – The Denver Post had to hand over cash and property. What had he done to rain down such punishment? According the reports, he’d ordered Thai employees to work between 26 and 32 hours of overtime weekly, without paying overtime wages, and he kept two sets of payroll books to conceal records from the IRS, the release said. That’s not the end of it. He also will forfeit two homes in Boulder worth about $766,000.

The Thai owner is forced out of America as a convicted felon with the shirt on his back for running his Thai business pretty much like it would be run in Thailand. The comments the article in the Denver Post are also revealing. Anti-immigrant rants commingled with anti-business bashing. If this were an American caught in the Thai legal system, such anti-foreign rants would also likely follow. Thailand is pro-business, especially pro-Thai business, and that makes it pretty much like every other country trying to prevent outsiders from coming in, setting up shop, and driving the locals into the poor house.

Let’s put the American case in some perspective by taking a cultural snapshot of what a legal immigrant worker in Thailand might confront when facing an abusive employer. The case involves a worker from Burma. This Burmese worker (with documentation required to work) was seriously injured at the workplace when a wall fell on him. He was taken to hospital and treated for ruptured intestine and a fractured thigh. The employer refused to pay for his medical expenses. The immigration and police were called and didn’t bother to check the worker’s papers. They ordered the worker to be physically chained to his hospital bed. A deportation order was also in the works. A legal action was brought on behalf of the worker. A Thai court intervened and awarded the worker $100.00 in compensation. The immigration department is considering appealing that order, which is among the first ever of such orders.

The moral of the story about workers in Denver and Bangkok is that what makes people fearful in one culture doesn’t necessarily travel to another culture. The Thai workers attitudes in America had lost the fear edge honed in Thailand. America may have its version of a patronage culture at the top of the food chain, but those heavy weighs aren’t going to help an immigrant Thai fix his case. So next time you are dining in a Thai restaurant outside of Thailand, you are probably eating a version of Thai food edited for local taste, cooked and served by Thais who know that once you change the ingredients in food every other aspect of the culture is open to change, too.

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