LOS ANGELES - The second-largest private sector industry in America, which is rapidly growing and which has become a cornerstone of the U.S. economy, has a big problem: its workers are paid unlivable wages, and typically cannot eat the very food they are putting on customers' tables.
Welcome to the restaurant industry!
During the AFL-CIO convention happening here now the plight of restaurant workers and the importance of bringing them to the labor movement are major points of discussion and action.
"It's perfectly legal to pay $2.13 to a worker, because they get tips," said Van Nguyen, a coordinator at Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) of the San Francisco Bay Area, and former campaign manager at Hep B Free Santa Clara County. "The federal minimum wage is $7.25, but that does not apply to restaurant workers because of tips."
Why? A quick flashback to 1996 provides the answer. At that time, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain ran the National Restaurant Association. He successfully lobbied to disassociate the minimum wage for tipped workers from the general minimum wage, meaning that for employees at restaurants, wages would remain at an abysmal $2.13. This created a policy of inequality for restaurant workers, which still exists. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.
"These workers get no respect on the job," Nguyen remarked. "They are not seeing the benefits of the industry," which is one of the only industries that has actually grown and relatively prospered during the economic recession.
They're also often denied basic health care and paid sick days - " Some 89.4 percent," according to Saru Jayaraman, author of Behind the Kitchen Door, which takes an in-depth look at the ongoing struggle of these workers, with a focus on Los Angeles, home of the nation's largest restaurant industry. "Undocumented workers disproportionately hold the lower paying restaurant jobs in the U.S." to boot, Saru added. And in Los Angeles, only 18 percent of restaurant workers earn wages that they can survive on.
A trailer for the book depicts some real-life workers who are truly struggling to provide excellent food service, and which have for too long been left out of the labor movement as a whole. It shows viewers Oscar, a busser who works 65 hours a week and is only paid for 40. Predictably, he is barely able to feed his family. A pastry chef named Andrea is regularly sexually harassed and afraid to speak out for fear of being fired.
And perhaps the most frightening example is that of Troy, a line cook who had to work while sick with pink eye and H1N1. He can't afford to see a doctor, and even if he could, he doesn't get a single paid sick day. This is one of the many people in the country who will be handling consumers' food. It's a harsh reality that people - even workers - are often unaware of, and the purpose of Behind the Kitchen Door is to help spread the word. Watch the trailer below. The story continues afterward.
Jayaraman is co-founder and co-director of ROC, which was founded after the September 11th attacks that resulted in the deaths of 73 workers in the World Trade Center's Windows on the World restaurant. 250 other workers at that eating establishment lost their jobs. This, said Jayaraman, was the motivating push for the formation of ROC, which fights to improve wages and working conditions at restaurants on a national level.
"Years ago, when I was organizing other workers," she said, "I would enjoy New York cuisine without really thinking about the workers at that very restaurant. Very few of us, in fact, can remember the person that served us our food. The work force is almost entirely invisible."
But there's a solution, and it involves taking a hard look behind that proverbial kitchen door. A good way to get pique interest in this struggle, she suggested, is talking about "ethical eating." When it comes to food, she said, people recently became very concerned about ethics in some respects: they increasingly want their food to be sustainable, organic, and cruelty-free; this is something that many animal rights activists have gotten behind, and the message has been spread.
In the same way, she expressed the hope that someday soon, consumers will want to know whether their servers are being treated cruelly: are they being paid decent wages? do they have health care? are they being harassed? Jayaraman and ROC looked optimistically forward to a turning point in which human rights and the restaurant industry will converge. She also hoped that the labor movement as a whole would take notice of this struggle, so waiters, bussers, and cooks might no longer be exempt from the fight for fair treatment of workers across the nation.
"One in 12 Americans works in the restaurant industry," she remarked. "And the industry experiences four to five times the profit margin of corporate giants like Walmart. And yet, restaurant workers must use food stamps at twice the rate of other workers." There is no reason that this should be happening, and that is why ROC is encouraging all other workers to look behind the kitchen door.
Peoplesworld.org video edited by Eli Halbreich
Photo: "Behind the Kitchen Door." fordfoundation.org