Kenyan businessman in Washington in court for ‘stealing his employees’ wages’

Kevin Onyona

Kevin Onyona, the owner of Swahili Village restaurant in Beltsville, Maryland.

Photo credit: Pool

A Kenyan national who owns a popular restaurant in Washington, DC is facing prosecution from US authorities for allegedly stealing wages from hundreds of his employees for many years.

The Attorney-General of Washington, DC, Brian Schwalb, disclosed in the court charges that the proprietor of the internationally popular eatery, Mr Kevin Onyona (Kenyan), and his business executive Mr Emad Shoeb “rampantly and systematically violated the city’s tipped minimum wage law and other worker protections, by stealing wages from their employees.”

The AG further stated that the restaurant, popularly known as Swahili Village, located in downtown DC on M Street, adds a 20 percent gratuity to all charges, but the owners allegedly pocketed large amounts of tips from customers, which are exclusively meant to be kept by the employees.

The AG’s lawsuit states that after the employer took away the tips, the employees were allegedly offered wages, which were far below minimum wage guidelines according to DC wage guidelines.

The announcement by the AG that he had opened charges against the executives of the Swahili Village restaurant triggered social media debates with many across the US, who had known the hotel as one of the success stories of an immigrant business entity in America, expressing outrage at the alleged unethical conduct by the owners.

“We are suing DC restaurant Swahili Village and its executives for systematically stealing wages and tips from servers, hosts, runners, bussers, and bartenders. My office is committed to enforcing the District's wage and labour laws and standing up for DC workers,” announced Mr Schwalb on his official Twitter handle.

The AG disclosed that the restaurant owners allegedly schemed money meant for employees and that they systematically exploited the workers, mostly comprising immigrant communities, by paying them as little as $5 per hour (about Sh720 per hour), contrary to government wage regulation.

The prosecution of the hotel proprietors will have far reaching ramifications of the eatery, which at one time was patronised by President Uhuru Kenyatta when he visited Washington, DC, some years back.

The AG’s lawsuit stated that the restaurant owners allegedly “stiffed its servers, hosts, food runners, bussers, and bartenders, paying as little as $5 an hour—and took away tips from patrons, which are normally meant for the employees, who are usually underpaid, to keep.”

Authorities alleged in the lawsuit that the restaurant owners did not provide legally required overtime payment and sick leave to employees despite them working over eight hours a day.

“Onyona and Shoeb stole from their working-class employees, many of whom are African immigrants, even while catering to an elite international clientele,” the lawsuit says.

“Our investigation indicates that Swahili Village DC and its executives, Kevin Onyona and Emad Shoeb, persistently and systematically failed to pay hundreds of hard-working restaurant workers the wages, tips, and benefits they were legally entitled to receive, violating the basic wage, overtime, sick leave, and record-keeping rules that all District employers are required to follow,” the AG further stated.

The AG said that after his office received complaints from the employees, investigations were launched, including interviewing over a dozen of the restaurant employees in preparation for the charges.

The restaurant owners were accused of failing to keep regular payroll records, in a clever move that concealed evidence on how the employees’ pay was calculated and whether statutory deductions were made.

The lawsuit disclosed that some of the violations that the employers committed include turning their workers into chattel slaves.

The AG stated that some employees allegedly worked 60 hours of work in a week, which gives them 20 hours of overtime, but they never received overtime rates calculated in 1.5 times the regular pay per hour of pay compensation as provided for in the employment and labour laws.

In addition, Onyona and Shoeb allegedly never observed labour guidelines where all employers must give their employees paid time off. However, when employees failed to report to work due to illnesses, they allegedly got reprimanded for missing work.

The restaurant is sometimes referred to as “The Consulate” by its owners, and promotes itself as a hangout for African dignitaries and diplomats.

They serve Kenyan cuisine, which includes goat stew, nyama choma, tilapia, and traditional vegetables rarely found in American grocery stores.

Mr Onyona started his food business in 2009. He expanded his businesses outside DC area to New Jersey.