It’s not just
in the streets
and it’s not just
the world are coming
forward saying racial
the workplace is
a problem, too
Asians around the world speak out on workplace discrimination
Published June 7, 2021
It’s not just in the streets, and it’s not just in the United States.
In Australia, 66.4% of Asian Australian respondents to a survey last October reported experiencing workplace discrimination, which represented an increase of almost 15% in six months. The pandemic worsened dramatically in the country during that time, with coronavirus cases surging from 4,862 to 27,109 between last April and October, according to a tracker from Johns Hopkins University.
Asian Australians also suffered a disproportionate drop in working hours last spring, which “was more than twice the drop” for the rest of the population, according to researchers at the Australian National University, which conducted the study. They noted that there was “a range of possible explanations” for the disparity, including “that discrimination against Asian Australians in the workplace may have had an effect.”
In the United Kingdom, the employment rate among Chinese people dropped 4.6% from the first quarter of 2020 to the second — nearly three times more than declines experienced by other ethnic groups, according to government data.
“It is likely that the high representation of Chinese and East Asian people in hard-hit sectors like hospitality is part of it, but direct discrimination by employers may play a role too,” Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, a British coalition of labor unions, told CNN Business.
These patterns could have long-term implications, especially as much of the world is still mired in a pandemic-related economic slowdown. In parts of the United States, Asian Americans have already been inordinately affected by the jobs crisis and faced historic unemployment.
The coronavirus outbreak was first detected in China last year, leading some politicians to blame the country for the crisis. Victims and community groups say that has emboldened more people to show hostility to those perceived to be of Asian — and especially Chinese — descent.
CNN Business spoke with 38 workers in 11 countries who reported experiencing or witnessing bias in a range of ways since the start of the pandemic, from explicit harassment to subtle microaggressions.
They are of various Asian ethnicities, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Filipino.
Here are 11 of their stories.
CNN Business spoke to dozens of people around the world.
Read, watch or listen to some of their experiences of racial discrimination in the workplace.
Ian Wong used to work as a part-time makeup artist to help support his student lifestyle in university.
But when he arrived for a booking at a London cosmetics store one day, a customer told him he didn’t want him for the job.
“They just said, ‘Oh, the pandemic just started and I’m not quite comfortable with you doing my makeup,’” he recalled.
“And so we asked why, and they said, ‘Oh. It’s just because you’re kind of Chinese, and coronavirus is from China, so, you know, it’s a bit dangerous.’”
The customer was so blasé, it was almost as if he was “oblivious” to how it came across, said Wong, who is Chinese and from Hong Kong.
Wong stepped away and had the customer reassigned to another makeup artist.
“Being in retail, part of the job is being trained to think on your feet and to be able to hold yourself together, maintain composure,” he said.
But looking back, he noticed an unmistakable pang. “There’s definitely some form of emptiness that was felt when that was said,” he told CNN Business.
Monica moved to Kuwait five years ago for work.
Since then, she has experienced “racist microaggressions almost on a daily basis,” she said.
“It can happen anywhere: work, the supermarket, the shopping mall, the gym, in a lift.”
Monica, who is of Chinese descent, teaches at an international school in Kuwait. She asked to be identified only by her first name — and to not publicly identify her employer — for fear of repercussions.
“I have had parents of students ask for their kids to be moved because they wanted a native English speaker. I am a native English speaker,” said Monica, who grew up in Wales.
Before the pandemic, another teacher ridiculed Monica on a school trip.
She said he mocked her with a racist gesture, pulling his eyes outward to imitate an Asian stereotype.
And since the Covid-19 outbreak, Monica has noticed more prejudice against Chinese people.
Last year, for instance, a physician came in to speak with students.
“The doctor was talking about what it is — coronavirus, the reason why it’s called corona,” she recalled.
“And then she said: ‘Coronavirus — the Chinese people have it.’”
Several students turned to look at Monica, though she stayed silent.
“I was itching to say something,” she said. “But bear in mind, there were hundreds of students in the hall. I did not want to make a scene.”
Joshua Grisé was working as a customer service representative at a fashion startup in Los Angeles last spring when the calls began flooding in, “asking us to cancel people’s orders,” he said.
“Customers on a daily basis would call in complaining that they no longer wanted their items, knowing that they were coming from Asia. They used excuses that Asians are responsible for the pandemic, as well as producing counterfeit goods,” he said, adding that buyers could see where their goods were coming from once they were shipped.
“I had several women rant to me about Asian people being ‘shady,’ going as far as to mimic fake Asian accents.”
Grisé, who was born to Korean parents and adopted to an American family in Kentucky, said the calls were extremely uncomfortable, but he did his best to stay professional.
Later, he raised the issue to supervisors. He declined to publicly identify his former employer.
Their response left him flabbergasted:
They said, ‘Well, you acknowledge it and you just move on. And this is your job and you’re being paid to do it.’
The final straw came a few months later, when most people were working from home.
Grisé said that customers continued to make insensitive remarks, leading him to eventually quit his job.
“I felt like I was inviting racism into my own home, in my living room,” he said.
“And the home that I love just felt so contaminated.”
Sissy Oishi de Lima was working at a gym in São Paulo last spring when she saw someone who appeared to be having difficulty with his equipment.
As a fitness instructor, she walked over and asked if she could help. But the reaction she got completely took her aback.
According to de Lima, who is half-Japanese, the man immediately took a step back as she approached.
He then looked her up and down, and asked her if she was Chinese.
De Lima stared back blankly. “[I thought,] ‘Why are you asking this?’” she recalled.
“Oh, the virus,” she said the man responded. “You know how it is.”
De Lima started shaking. “[He] looked at me like I was the virus,” she said. “[Like I was] disgusting.”
Asian people in Brazil … We pretend we don’t care, but it hurts deep inside.
Feeling tears start welling, she left the room to calm down.
But the incident made her realize that “we need to talk more about this,” she told CNN Business.
“Asian people in Brazil … We pretend we don’t care, but it hurts deep inside.”
Yunhan Zhang was working behind the till when the attack happened.
Last November, a man charged into his café, Valley Brook Tea, yelling “Chinese” and “Covid-19.”
Surveillance video posted on Twitter by Zhang in November shows him sliding up his mask and taking a step back.
“Go away,” he said.
“Hey, you go away, motherf***er,” the attacker replied. Then he pepper-sprayed Zhang.
This wasn’t the first hateful incident Zhang and his wife had encountered at their store, he told CNN Business.
“We posted this one because we actually have video footage,” he added.
“There were a lot more things [where] we did not post the videos.”
Looking back, Zhang said, “I realized … I was lucky. It was only pepper spray. It wasn’t a gun.”
After the attack, Zhang started thinking about mapping out potential escape routes at his store. He and his wife needed to plan, “Okay, if something like this happens again, where do we run? Which door to lock?” he said.
“It seems we’re the only business that keeps getting harassed and attacked in this [neighborhood],” Zhang wrote on Twitter. “We cannot stay in business if this happens on a weekly [or] monthly basis.”
Zejian Peng remembers the day he no longer felt comfortable in his own store.
As the Covid-19 crisis worsened last February, “Asian hate began spreading” in his hometown of Salerno, Italy, he said.
“All of a sudden, people started talking badly about China. It went from: ‘you brought the virus’ [to] ‘I will not spend money at Chinese shops as their products come from China, so the virus could be on the product itself,’” according to Peng.
The entrepreneur, who is originally from China and grew up in Europe, considers himself “a veteran of Italian racism.”
“I’ve been subject to it since I was a child,” he said, recalling being slapped, spat on and insulted over the color of his skin as a young boy.
Last year, he said that sometimes people would see him inside his store — bustling between the aisles or working behind the till — and abruptly leave.
Or they “just wouldn’t come in at all,” Peng said in Italian, his first language.
Things got so unpleasant that Peng took drastic action. For several months, he decided to stop going into his own store, and he later even transferred the business to his Caucasian Italian wife’s name.
“I tried to make my shop as Western-looking as possible,” said Peng, adding that he was renovating it to more closely resemble popular local franchises.
“I have really felt this thing of constantly being compared to a ‘Chinese shop,’ and it was something that I really couldn’t deal with anymore.”
Asked whether he was concerned about the idea of white-washing, Peng demurred.
“I have seen this as a marketing tactic rather than a … loss of my identity,” he said.
Sumy works nights as a store clerk for a retailer in the United States.
“I refuse to work during the day because customers who ask me for help are very rude to me due to my accent,” said Sumy, a Vietnamese American immigrant who has lived in the United States for nearly a decade.
It doesn’t end there. Even behind the scenes, Sumy said she frequently experiences hurtful run-ins at work.
She asked to be identified only by her nickname, for fear of reprisals.
“The [store] I work at has a new manager and she refuses to speak to me,” Sumy told CNN Business. “She won’t even say hello to me or to the other Vietnamese woman who works with me.”
Sumy added that whenever she and her Asian colleague approach the manager, they are blatantly ignored or dismissed.
“She will go to the other manager on night shift, so she doesn’t have any reason to talk to us,” said Jane.
The exclusion has left her feeling increasingly troubled, and she has repeatedly expressed fears of speaking up publicly and potentially losing her job.
“Can I ask each of the three witnesses to very briefly tell me whether they are willing to unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship?”
That was the bombshell question Australian Senator Eric Abetz lobbed at three Chinese Australians during a parliamentary hearing last October.
One of them was Osmond Chiu, a research fellow at Per Capita, a progressive think tank.
While the exchange took place outside his official workplace, Chiu said it still happened in a work setting.
He had appeared that day to discuss his research commissioned by another organization, which examined the lack of diversity in Australian politics.
“My submission wasn’t about China and the inquiry was not about the Chinese Communist Party,” he told CNN Business. “It had no direct relevance.”
Chiu responded: “I don’t support the Communist Party, but I don’t believe that it’s helpful to get into a political game of denouncements.”
The academic now says the exchange was “extremely disappointing,” regardless of political differences. (Chiu is a member of Australia’s left-leaning Labor Party, while Abetz is from the conservative Liberal Party.)
Abetz said during the hearing that “this is not a condemnation of the Chinese people,” adding later that “standing firm against ugly dictatorships is everyone’s duty.”
“It is regrettable that someone who presented as a China expert at a Senate inquiry seeks to grossly misrepresent what I said,” he said in a statement to CNN Business. “Mr. Chiu conveniently always omits that he was asked if he would ‘unequivocally condemn the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship.’ Freedom-loving countries and individuals should condemn this barbaric dictatorship.”
However, Chiu said the exchange was unlike anything else he’d ever experienced.
“I accept that there’ll be disagreements,” he added. “But I think that the singling out of individuals of Chinese heritage put for a loyalty test is racist.”
Mia, a Vietnamese American speech pathologist, was conducting a teletherapy session last fall when she asked a parent if she was planning to send her child back for in-person learning.
The mother stated: “I can’t, because your people brought over this virus and my son can’t wear a mask.”
Mia is a pseudonym CNN Business agreed to use to protect her identity.
Months earlier, she had another student tell her that he didn’t feel comfortable in her office because he thought she might give him the “disease.”
Some students even flat-out refused to work with her because they said they were afraid that she would give them the coronavirus. Other kids, meanwhile, expressed fear “that maybe the virus was in my office,” she said.
“It makes me just really, honestly, feel very sad,” she told CNN Business.
“It has nothing to do with my ability as a speech pathologist. It’s all because of the way I look, or my name.”
Mia said she has usually tried to speak out against the comments, but “then oftentimes I will hear the statement: ‘but I’m not racist.’”
“And I think that’s where we have to go back and think like, what does that really mean?”
For almost a week last February, Marisa Weaver had been pulling long hours at a nursing home in Bristol, England. She was tired but felt capable of putting in more hours at work.
Then, on the seventh day, her colleague asked her to go home.
Weaver asked why.
She said the colleague told her: “We don’t want to get that Covid, we don’t want to get ill … You should go home because we don’t want … you [to infect] us with this Covid.’”
“And I said, ‘I haven’t been diagnosed with Covid,’” Weaver recounted. “I [didn’t] have any symptoms.”
The coworker, who was acting as the team leader that day, insisted.
“‘You don’t look right,’” Weaver recalled her saying. “So they sent me home.”
While the colleague did not comment on Weaver’s ethnicity — she is Filipina — she suspected being singled out.
“They assume that because you are from Asia, and I look Chinese, then I have the coronavirus, that I’m spreading the coronavirus,” said the former nurse.
Kun Huang is used to politicians getting nasty letters. But even he was surprised by the venomous piece of mail he received at his office in March.
Huang asked to see it even though the council assistant told him: “we strongly recommend you not to read it.”
The letter was laced with profanities and death threats. It spewed hate against the Chinese, calling them “yellow people” and claiming that “it is people like you who have wrecked this once beautiful country.”
“You brought the Chinese disease here,” it read. “ALL OF YOU CHINESE PEOPLE ARE WORTH KILLING ALL AT ONCE.”
The message also pointed to pent-up resentment that some suspect has existed in Australia for years, accusing Chinese people of buying out everything on “our shelves” and loading up on “Australian properties.”
“YOU ARE NOT AUSTRALIA,” the letter read. “THIS COUNTRY WAS BUILT BY WHITE AUSTRALIAN PEOPLE.”
Huang, who serves as a city councilor for the area of Cumberland in Sydney, later discovered similar letters were sent to three other Chinese Australian city councilors. On the recommendation of police — who are investigating the letters — Huang said his local council has now increased security at its meetings.
But while Huang said he was “appalled and disgusted,” there was a part of him that wasn’t entirely surprised, either.
“Look, there is a history of racism in Australia, especially in the workplace,” he said.
“For Asian Australians, we always feel like … there’s a ceiling that we just can’t crack.”
Even within Asia, there is evidence of rising Sinophobia. In South Korea, a restaurant manager in the Chinatown district of Incheon, a city near Seoul, said that her business had been hit hard during the pandemic.
At the beginning of the crisis, “I heard a lot about people not wanting to go to places where many Chinese people go,” she said.
She requested anonymity, saying she didn’t want to affect the restaurant’s business.
“Our business gets affected when there is a political or health problem related to China. If the relationship with China worsens, there will be fewer customers in Chinatown.”
Some businesses have outright refused to serve people based on their ethnicity. Piao Lianji, who works at the Seoul Global Center, an organization focused on migrant rights, said that she saw signs at several restaurants in South Korea’s capital at the start of the pandemic, prohibiting Chinese people from entering.
My heart sank. It reminded me of signs at restaurants abroad saying that dogs are not allowed,” she said.
In India, which shares a northeastern border with China, there has also been more hostility against Northeast Indians, who are often mistaken to be Chinese, according to half a dozen people who spoke with CNN Business.
Alana Golmei, who runs the Northeast Support Centre & Helpline, said many people from the region have been increasingly targeted, including health care workers who have been singled out during the pandemic.
One doctor she spoke with, for example, recently said a patient called her “corona,” simply because “she looked Chinese,” according to Golmei.
“It’s not about the virus alone — but the virus of racism,” she said. “You’re being looked at as if you’re carriers of the virus.”
Elena Pompei in London, Yoonjung Seo in Seoul and Priya Krishnakumar in Los Angeles contributed to this report.