From locally grown, organic greens to grass-fed beef, we care about the food that comes out of the kitchen—but what about the workers who chop, grill, sauté and serve our food? Today, the restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest growing industries in the United States. Despite its size and growth, the industry suffers from pervasively low wages, wage theft, non-existent benefits, rampant discrimination and often dangerous or unhealthy working conditions.
This week in New York City, consumers, students and working people, are coming together for an action and food justice conference to learn more about the enormous impact food workers have on the economy and on consumers, food safety and public health.
This video trailer, for the upcoming book Behind the Kitchen Door, gives a brief glimpse into the working conditions in restaurants told through the stories of workers. According to author Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, the health and well-being of the second-largest private-sector workforce is at stake—the lives of 10 million people, many immigrants, many people of color, who bring passion, tenacity and important insight into the American dining experience.
It’s no coincidence that seven of the 10 lowest-paying jobs in America are in the restaurant industry, 90 percent of restaurant workers lack paid sick days and only .01 percent are represented by a union. Workers represented by unions, on average, are paid 20 percent higher wages than nonunion workers and are more likely to have paid leave and a secure retirement. Despite facing many barriers, restaurant workers across the country are building awareness among consumers and organizing to improve their working conditions.
As one Washington, D.C., restaurant worker quoted in the book, says:
Customers always ask us if this dish is organic or local, thinking that is what will ensure that they are having a healthy meal, a meal they can feel good about but if they knew about what workers were dealing with…working with the flu, tips and wage being stolen by the owner, getting screamed at and abused by managers, being called racial slurs, getting groped by male workers—they would think twice about the quality of their food.
Learn more about what you can do as a consumer to eat ethically. For more information on Behind the Kitchen Door, check out www.behindthekitchendoor.org, and for a consumer guide to eating out, please visit http://rocunited.org/dinersguide.
This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on June 6, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Jennifer Angarita is an AFL-CIO Worker Center coordinator.