What’s Behind the Kitchen Door?
About 100 people gathered in the Public Welfare Foundation’s Lankford Auditorium today to hear Saru Jayaraman talk about her book, Behind the Kitchen Door, which was released this week. The book examines the poor pay and working conditions suffered by a majority of the nation’s restaurant workers.
“I spent my most intimate and special moments in a restaurant,” celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions, Jayaraman told the gathering. “But, like many Americans, I never thought about the people who touched my food…Generally, they are invisible to us.”
That all changed for Jayaraman after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, when the popular restaurant, Windows on the World, was destroyed with the collapse of the first World Trade Center building. The attack killed 73 of the restaurant’s workers and caused 250 more to lose their jobs.
Jayaraman, who had been organizing immigrant workers, including restaurant workers, on Long Island, joined with Fekkak Mamdouh, an experienced headwaiter at Windows, to help get relief – and new jobs – for the surviving Windows workers. They co-founded Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC), which pressured the owner of Windows to hire almost all the surviving workers in the banquet department of a new restaurant he opened.
Since then, ROC, a grantee under the Public Welfare Foundation’s Workers’ Rights Program, has become a major advocate for the more than 10 million workers in the restaurant industry. While the industry is one of the largest and fastest growing sectors in the economy, it is also an unfortunate model of low-wage work, including 7 of the 11 lowest paying jobs, such as dishwashers and fast food preparers.
As Jayaraman put it, “We’re building the economy on the backs of the lowest paid workers in the country.”
Most significantly, restaurant workers’ wages have been stagnant because the federal minimum wage for tipped workers has been frozen at $2.13 an hour for 22 years. In addition, Jayaraman estimated that 90 percent of restaurant workers don’t get paid sick days, two-thirds report working while sick with the flu or other illnesses, and more than half suffer severe cuts or burns on the job.
She and ROC ask that restaurant diners educate themselves and patronize restaurants that provide better benefits and working conditions for employees, using ROC’s Diner’s Guide to Ethical Eating. She also asks concerned consumers to push Congress to raise the federal minimum wage for tipped workers to at least $5.00 an hour.
Ultimately, Jayaraman and ROC want consumers to be as active in demanding better wages and conditions for restaurant workers as they have become in demanding local and organic food.
Jayaraman said she and ROC are promoting Behind the Kitchen Door not just as a book, but as a “call to action.”
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