KIWA was created in 1992 just two months before the Los Angeles Civil Unrest. In a city torn with racism, poverty, and inequality, KIWA started with the goal of addressing worker exploitation amongst Korean and Latino workers in Koreatown, and to struggle in solidarity with other communities for a more just Los Angeles.
KIWA’s first campaign insisted that not only business owners, but also workers were entitled to compensation funds when their livelihoods were destroyed in the civil unrest, winning some measure of restitution for dozens of Korean and Latino workers in Ktown.
In 1997, KIWA helped workers win over $2 million from retailers and manufactures connected with El Monte operators. This landmark campaign, waged with Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Thai CDC, exposed Southern California’s modern-day slave labor sweatshops to the general public.
While the organization was founded as Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates, in 2006, KIWA changed names to Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance to reflect that KIWA was and never has been only Korean because there was not a workplace in Koreatown with Korean workers that didn’t also have Latino workers.
In Koreatown, service-sector industries and businesses like supermarkets, restaurants, carwashes, and garment factories dominate the local economy, providing over 50% of the jobs. As a result, KIWA has focused on organizing workers in the restaurant and supermarket industries. In 2013, our “Raw Deal” campaign targeted the most expensive restaurant in California (the 2nd most in the U.S.), Urasawa in Beverly Hills, with the leadership of a former Urasawa worker and Koreatown resident, Heriberto Zamora. Raw Deal exposed not only the conditions at Urasawa, but the reality that wage theft and disrespectful treatment towards working people takes place in all types of businesses. See coverage here
Faced with a wave of development in Koreatown that has brought expensive businesses and luxury housing to the area, KIWA has expanded its reach to housing and neighborhood rights, equitable development policies, and participatory community planning. Through a combination of grassroots organizing and strategic partnerships, KIWA seeks to empower workers and residents in Koreatown to contribute to the social, cultural, and economic development of their neighborhood.
Today, KIWA combines organizing, leadership development, services, and policy advocacy in order to improve the lives of immigrant workers in low-wage industries in Koreatown and build a foundation for social change.