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Restaurant Workers: Saru Jayaraman Takes Us 'Behind the Kitchen Door'

Saru Jayaraman

The partition that separates diners from the inner workings of the restaurant industry toppled for Saru Jayaraman shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Fekkak Mamdouh, one of the headwaiters of the restaurant housed on the top floor of the World Trade Center, approached Jayaraman seven months after the attacks. His former boss deemed him and his former crew “not experienced enough” to work in his new Times Square restaurant. Jayaraman, a 27-year-old organizer of immigrant women, took up the case to advocate for the displaced workers, organized protests and won—most of the workers were awarded the good jobs their former boss promised.

Jayaraman and Mamdouh formed Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United in April 2002 and were flooded with stories of workplace atrocities in New York City and, eventually, across the country. We spoke with Jayaraman earlier this month about her new book on the ills of the restaurant industry, Behind the Kitchen Door.

DL: You had experience organizing immigrant workers but had little experience in the food and restaurant industry. As you learned about working conditions in restaurants, what alarmed you most?

SJ: Two things: the severe racial segregation in the industry—white people in front, people of color in back. I was alarmed partly that it existed and partly that I had never noticed it before. The other thing was the severe, sometimes slave-like working conditions in the industry. In New York City, I'd meet restaurant workers who were trafficked into the country, workers who would share a bed—one would work while the other slept and then the other would sleep while the other worked. 

But these things are the typical shockers for a new person looking at the conditions in the industry. What has been more shocking over time is the sheer size and breadth of this industry. The slave-like conditions might not exist for 10 million restaurant workers nationwide, but extreme poverty does and it affects a lot more people. 

DL: Your book delves into the race issues that seem to be pervasive in the restaurant industry—specifically the divide between back of the house and front of the house and the limited mobility of someone who wants to move to the front of the house. Can you speak on that?

SJ: There’s a $4 gap between workers of color and white workers in terms of their hourly wage, according to our data, and it’s due to two reasons: within a restaurant, workers of color are more likely to be found in back of the house positions—lower-level, lower-wage positions; in the whole industry, workers of color are more likely found in lower-level segments—fast food as opposed to fine dining. It’s segregation in terms of both of those two wings that ultimately lead to workers of color earning $4 less than everybody else in the industry. And the real issue is, for the vast majority, they’re not able to move up the ladder.

Read the rest of this Q and A on AFL-CIO's new website @Work

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