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.