Justice for Food Workers: An Interview with Sarumathi Jayaraman

Sarumathi Jayaraman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) and author of the upcoming book Behind The Kitchen Door, says that what’s at stake when we choose a restaurant are the lives of 10 million people, many immigrants, many people of color, who bring passion, tenacity, and important insight into the American dining experience.

The Huffington Post posted a story about working conditions for restaurant staff that recants the stifling history of the “tipped minimum wage,” the lack of regulatory influence on service workers, and the harsh realities of being paid bare minimum for hard work in situations that are neither stable nor compassionate.

Jayaraman’s promising book, Behind The Kitchen Door, investigates further and asks whether we can really eat ethically if we’re only purchasing ethical food, but not ensuring that there are ethical labor practices for the people who get the food to our plates?

I had an opportunity to talk more via eemail with Jayaraman about ROC’s work with immigrant and low-wage restaurant workers.

What was the impetus for the upcoming book?

Over the last 10 years, ROC has conducted more than 5,000 surveys of low-wage restaurant workers, 300 employer interviews, and 300 in-depth worker interviews, and has published more than 15 reports on the industry. Through all of this research, we have found that the extremely low wages, lack of benefits, and poor working conditions faced by the more than 10 million restaurant workers nationwide directly and severely impact the safety, health, and overall dining experience of every consumer who eats out.

We wanted to write a popular book to let everyone who eats out understand what’s going on behind the kitchen door, and the severe implications of the poor wages and working conditions of the people who touch our food on our own health and welfare. I wanted to share my own story – that my own dining experience has changed in learning the stories of these workers, and that I think theirs will too. Most importantly, after learning about what’s going on, we want to implore every restaurant consumer to take small actions to change the industry – use ROC’s Diners Guide when eating out, let restaurant managers know that as consumers we care about whether the workers have paid sick days or are paid poverty wages as much as we care about whether the chicken is free-range.

Ultimately, we hope to encourage consumers to let their legislators know that a minimum wage for tipped workers of $2.13 and a lack of paid sick days are simply unacceptable, both for the sake of those workers and the sake of our own health and welfare as consumers.

Who do you want to read this book?

The target audience is everyone and anyone who eats out, but frankly that includes everyone who touches this industry, including workers, managers, owners, and policy makers.

What questions do you hope this book will incite?

How did the industry get to this point? How did we allow undue corporate influence to create such incredible disparity in one of the nation’s largest industries? As a restaurant consumer, what can I do to change this situation?

Are people prepared to bare the burden of higher meal costs at restaurants in order to supplement an increase in wages and standards for working?

All of our research—and in fact research by the USDA—indicates that there would not be a higher cost of meals at restaurants if workers were paid and treated well. We have several responsible employer partners who manage to pay livable wages and provide benefits with comparable menu prices to other restaurants in their segment of the industry. Our Diners Guide has awarded restaurant companies in every segment of the industry—fast food, casual, and fine dining restaurants—that provide these wages and working conditions without high menu prices.

How can costs be covered if businesses take it on themselves to increase wages and provide benefits?

The employers profiled in my book and also in ROC’s recent report, “Taking the High Road: A How-To Guide for Successful Restaurant Employers,” talk about how providing increased wages and benefits might create an initial short-term cost, but that there are extremely high long-term costs for restaurant profit, including much lower turnover, which allows them to save the cost of hiring and training new workers all the time (most restaurants experience over 100 percent turnover in one year), increased productivity by their employees, including better service and ‘up-selling’ by dining room staff, decreased liability, increased worker loyalty and decreased theft and breakage, and more.

Are there actions that people can take after reading the book?

Yes, there are specific recommended actions listed in the last chapter. Specifically, we hope people will use the ROC Diners Guide and speak to restaurant management every time they eat out. We also hope people will let their legislators know that a $2.13 minimum wage for tipped workers is not acceptable.

What campaigns can concerned customers get involved with?

Currently, ROC has a campaign to encourage Darden, the owner of the Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Capital Grille, Bahamas Breeze, Seasons 52 and other brands, and the world’s largest full-service restaurant company, to end racial discrimination and wage theft and act as an industry leader with regard to poverty wages and paid sick days. Consumers can let the management in any of Darden’s restaurants know that they encourage the company to act as an industry leader on these issues. ROC also has engaged in local, state and federal policy campaigns.

As a result of our efforts, for the first time in 15 years, House of Representatives leader George Miller introduced a minimum wage bill in Congress that includes a significant increase in the tipped minimum wage. Consumers can let their representatives know that they should move this legislation forward, for the sake of everyone who eats out.

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