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Saru Jayaraman Reveals a World ‘Behind the Kitchen Door’

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Educator and activist Saru Jayaraman is a leader in the movement to improve working conditions and pay for workers in the food industry
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    Saru Jayaraman, cofounder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has been fighting for the rights of underpaid restaurant workers for more than a decade. 

    As the Indian American activist explains in her book, “Behind the Kitchen Door” (Cornell University Press, 2013), some workers in the restaurant business, including both legal and illegal immigrants, must contend with racist hiring practices, wage theft, unfair tip-pooling practices and outright tip theft by management, and a lack of paid sick days as well as some of the lowest wages in the country. The restaurant industry may employ 10 million people in the U.S., but restaurant workers use food stamps at twice the rate of the rest of the workforce, and are three times as likely to live in poverty.

    Now, she and her ROC colleagues in 32 cities across the U.S. are celebrating the recent passage of AB10, a bill in the California State Legislature that provides for a hike in the minimum wage to $8.25 per hour Jan. 1, 2014 and rising to $8.75 in 2015 and $9.25 in 2016. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers is currently $2.13 per hour, a rate that has not increased in more than 20 years.

    “We’re very happy,” Jayaraman told India-West in a recent interview at a café next to UC Berkeley, where she lectures on labor practices in the restaurant industry at the Goldman School of Public Policy. “We were part of the conversation all along. We were especially happy that tipped workers have not been excluded [from the bill] by the state of California. In the end, the legislators and the governor did the right thing — the bill was passed — so it’s great news for millions of people.”

    Momentum is growing for a minimum wage hike nationwide: fast food workers led protests in hundreds of U.S. cities Dec. 5 demanding higher wages, and President Obama on Dec. 4 called income inequality the “defining challenge of our time.”

    Jayaraman is a petite, articulate woman who has brought her argument for raising the living standards of food workers to a nation-wide audience, appearing on CNBC, HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” PBS’s “Moyers & Company” and CNN’s “Starting Point.” A graduate of Yale Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, she has a seemingly limitless supply of statistics on hand, some of which will come as sad, surprising news to those of us who love to eat in restaurants. 

    The restaurant business, as many entrepreneurs know, is one of the riskiest. Yet across the industry as a whole, she said, her studies show that profit margins are up.

    “The average profit margin nationwide for restaurants small and large is four to five percent,” she told India-West, “which may sound small, until you realize that Walmart has a one percent profit margin. 

    “The restaurant business is doing quite well. There may be individuals struggling, but as an industry, this is the fastest growing industry in the U.S., meaning they are continuing to grow. Here is the thing to look at: If the industry continues to grow and add more jobs, why have the wages stagnated? 

    “Regardless of what may be the case for individual restaurant owners, as an industry the job growth indicates a level of success that is not matched by wage increases.”

    “Behind the Kitchen Door” is full of tales of workers with infectious conditions such as conjunctivitis, hepatitis A or H1N1 and being told to show up for work, or else.

    The book also delves into the common practice of highly experienced, dark-skinned workers repeatedly being passed up for promotions while inexperienced, white applicants are given prime front-of-the-house positions.

    “There’s a $4 wage gap between white workers and workers of color,” she told India-West.

    “Workers of color are concentrated in segments like fast food and casual dining, or for busser, runner and back-of-the-house positions … We organized Restaurant Daniel, a [Guide Michelin] 4-star rated restaurant in New York City, where servers earn $150,000 a year in tips while bussers earn $25,000. The bussers came to us saying they’d asked consistently for promotions and got passed over time and time again. They were told, ‘You don’t have the table talk. You don’t have “the look.”’ Very inexperienced, white workers would immediately get promoted over them and earn five times what they were earning.”

    Jayaraman is sensitive to the race issue in particular as a result of growing up in India, she writes in the book. “Indians are notoriously obsessed with skin color and race. As a child, when my family took a trip to India, relatives and friends often commented that I was the ‘darkest child’ among my sisters and that I should stay out of the sun. This was not a compliment.”

    In other cases profiled in the book, management simply steals a portion of the tips, or waiters and waitresses are forced to share their tips with management. The “pooling” of tips and redistribution to cooks, runners and bussers is a widespread and perfectly legal practice, but this was out and out theft, she writes.

    “ROC had a campaign against a huge fine dining restaurant in Manhattan where it was not a pooled house, and every night the servers were asked to give 15 percent to the management. They’re told, ‘If you don’t, you will be fired.’ Before we started organizing, a group of waiters got together to protest it — and they were fired instantly.”

    Her work shows results, but it also faces tough opposition from the National Restaurant Association, a powerful lobby that has worked to keep wages low. In addition, she said, “We’ve gotten hate mail from companies that say ‘Stop it, or else.’ All the time, the opposition tries to contact our funders and our supporters, but it hasn’t stopped us or worried us,” she said. “Every time that happens, we’re flattered because it means that change is happening and the status quo is being threatened. Unfortunately, that’s what needs to happen if change is going to happen.”

    India-West asked Jayaraman where Indian restaurants tend to stand within the greater picture of fair treatment for restaurant workers. 

    “There’s a very high rate of noncompliance with the law in many Indian restaurants. They are not exceptional, though, and they follow the trend,” she said. “Basically, restaurant owners know there’s a law, and they say, ‘Nobody’s enforcing it. I can get away with not paying the minimum wage, or taking people’s tips,’ and it’s not good for our community … Unfortunately, there is a reputation Indian restaurants have of not following the law.”

    But Jayaraman is quick to mention some influential leaders in the Indian American community dedicated to changing the status quo in the mainstream — people such as restaurateur Vimala Rajendran, owner of Curryblossom Café in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who pays her workers $10 per hour plus tips, benefits and a child care subsidy; San Francisco Bay Area author and activist Raj Patel (“Stuffed and Starved”); Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance; and Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance. “I think that we have a cultural history of social justice,” she explained.

    “There’s an overrepresentation of just good karma in our population! And yet in the restaurant business there is this really bad reputation we have for being exploitative, not just to other Indians but to other communities. We Indian consumers and Indian business owners have a responsibility to clean up that image and do the right thing.”

    For more information on the work of ROC, visit ROCUnited.org or TheWelcomeTable.net, where readers can download an app of a Diners’ Guide offering ideas on how concerned diners can spark a conversation with restaurant owners and management about the fair treatment of their workers.

    “As diners, we often ask, ‘Is this local? Is this organic?’” she told India-West.

    “We don’t ask questions like, ‘Do people get paid sick days? Do people get treated well?’ We don’t demand those things as consumers — but if we did, I think the industry would respond.”

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