Kimberly Lok is a graduate student in sociology at Temple University. Her research revolves around food, politics, and social justice.
With annual sales projected to reach a record high of $660.5 billion in 2013, it is estimated that the restaurant industry earns $1.8 billion on a typical day1. Despite this fact, the average restaurant employee earns only $15,092 on average each year, and nearly 90% do not have paid sick days or health insurance2. For the majority of the 11 million restaurant workers and a number growing each day, this means living below the poverty level in a constant struggle to make ends meet.
Saru Jayaraman, author of the new book Behind the Kitchen Door, is on a mission to change that. Behind the Kitchen Door provides a rare and detailed look into the persistent challenges and discriminatory practices that keep the average restaurant worker living below the poverty line with few opportunities for advancement. “We don’t usually think of food service workers as poor, if we think of them at all,” says Jayaraman, “We don’t realize that huge populations of workers of color are denied opportunities to advance and can’t earn a living wage.” Nor do many realize, she points out that, that bus boys, cooks, waiters, and dishwashers routinely face racial discrimination and gender inequality.
Jayaraman points out what restaurant goers fail to see: that race still matters in the restaurant industry. In the chapter ”Race in the Kitchen,” Jayaraman examines how race informs the real and distinct lines between workers in the “front of the house” and those in the “back of the house.” As one manager of a Detroit restaurant and 20-year restaurant veteran says, “Well, diversity in Detroit usually means everyone in the back of the house is black, everybody in the front of the house is white. That’s what you’d expect.” Because people of color and immigrants make up the vast majority of restaurant workers, racial discrimination remains a commonplace practice throughout the entire industry.
The number of men working in restaurants has long outnumbered women who are routinely subjected to demeaning verbal abuse and sexual harassment in this male dominated space. In the chapter “Women Waiting on Equality,” Jayaraman discusses the struggles of women workers who frequently reported verbal sexual harassment from chefs and management in addition to being pushed into the lowest paying positions such as salad and pastry prep without any opportunities for advancement. Consequently, race and gender create a double bind for women of color who “are at the greatest disadvantage” says Jayaraman whose research found a $4.50 an hour wage gap between women of color and other restaurant workers.
Throughout the book Jayaraman illustrates these issues with real life stories from restaurant workers. These stories reveal the struggles faced by many foodservice workers—who are commonly subjected to wage theft, mandatory unpaid overtime, substandard working conditions, and sexual harassment. Jayaraman, a long-time labor activist, is co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center-United (ROC), a national not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of restaurant workers. ROC advocates for benefits that would improve the lives of all low-wage employees: an increased minimum wage, paid sick days, and health benefits
Jayaraman supplements these rich personal narratives with well-supported findings drawn from a comprehensive series of studies conducted by ROC from 2003 – 2011. Based on survey data from 4,323 restaurant workers and more than 240 in-depth interviews, these studies represent the largest national study of restaurant workers conducted to date. Above all, these accounts reveal the collective prevalence of low wages, employer violations, discriminatory practices and inequality commonly faced by restaurant employees in their day-to-day work environment.
Foremost, Behind the Kitchen Door is a wake up call to each and every one of us, reminding us to pay attention to the hands that feed us. Jayaraman puts forth a call to action for diners to “picket with your wallet.” In the final chapter, “Recipes for Change,” Jayaraman tells consumers to support restaurant workers at all spectrums of the food chain. Discuss, she says, labor and hiring practices with the managers at the restaurants you frequent. Vote for paid sick days and to increase the minimum wage for tipped workers, and use the 2013 ROC National Diner’s Guide to Ethical Eating and support restaurants that practice responsible labor practices.
Fundamentally, Jayaraman hopes to redefine “sustainable food” to also include sustainable labor practices. Today’s food culture—dominated by the foodie and locavore notion of sustainability—privileges health and environmental issues above labor concerns. However, as Saru Jayaraman argues, sustainable food must “embody fair and equitable labor practices. Food can’t really be healthy, ethically consumed, or sustainable if it’s prepared and served in an environment that permits abuse, exploitation, and discrimination.” Behind the Kitchen Door reveals the eye-opening inequalities of the restaurant industry and gives an honest voice to restaurant workers everywhere. For that, anyone who enjoys restaurant dining would be well advised to read this book that pushes us towards a more holistic understanding of sustainability—and implores us to do our part in making it a reality.