LOS ANGELES–“People who make a living by cooking and serving our food deserve to be treated like skilled professionals, not slaves,” says Saru Jayaraman, 38, founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROCU), a nonprofit organization committed to improving the wage and working conditions of restaurant workers. Her book, Behind the Kitchen Door, published in February 2013, chronicles years of research and interviews with hundreds of restaurant workers, and is attracting national media attention.
Born in Rochester, New York in 1975 to immigrants from South India, Saru’s family moved to San Diego when she was three, and then to Los Angeles, where she was angered by the treatment meted out to those in low-paying jobs, especially people of color. Growing up in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, Saru’s friends and classmates were mostly immigrants whose parents were gardeners, janitors, and restaurant workers. “I am not an outsider who woke up one day and decided to take up this cause,” she says of her passionate concern for these workers. “They are my friends, my neighbors, honest hard-working people, and I feel like I am one among them.”
Adding fuel to her fire was the subtle and even blatant racial discrimination her parents had to endure, especially when her software engineer father lost his job and found it difficult to break back into the industry. “I can’t say that I grew up in poverty, but we had it hard enough for me to understand the importance of a regular salary,” she says. Visiting family and friends in India, she was often exposed to the plight of people working as domestic help in rich families. “Their future lay only in serving their masters. They could not dream of accomplishing anything else for themselves. Dehumanizing poor workers is an inexcusable offence, wherever it may happen,” she adds.
When Saru was 17 and a student at University of California Los Angles, she cofounded a nonprofit called Women and Youth Supporting Each Other (WYSE) to help young women make responsible decisions and create community change. College-age mentors would conduct weekly group sessions on a variety of topics affecting young women, and provide one-on-one mentorship to those in need. The organization earned instant recognition; in 1995, then-President Bill Clinton called Saru “one of America’s finest young people.” The organization has grown to more than a dozen college campuses around the country.
After receiving her B.A. in Political Science at UCLA in 1995, Saru went to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University for a Masters’ degree in Public Policy, and graduated in 1998. She then earned a law degree from Yale Law School in 2000. “Yale was a culture shock,” she says. “I met some very wealthy and elitist students who were extremely racist, and had horrible comments to make about the poor and people of color.”
Armed with her education in public policy and law, Saru started La Alianza Para La Justicia (Alliance for Justice) at the nonprofit Workplace Project in Hempstead, New York, in 1999. This program was aimed at helping factory, restaurant, and cleaning workers legally fight exploitation in the workplace. After the 9/11 tragedy, the surviving and unemployed workers of the Windows on the World restaurant on top of the World Trade Center sought Saru’s help when they were denied employment in the restaurant’s new location in Times Square. Saru organized a protest that eventually helped reinstate all the workers. This successful protest led many other restaurant workers in the area to approach Saru for help, and she started the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York in 2002. It went national in 2007 as the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROCU).
The challenges ROCU took on were enormous. Saru found extreme racial and gender discrimination, rampant abuse, and abysmal working conditions in addition to a “slave wage” in the restaurant industry, especially as tips are usually inconsistent. And while there are over 10 million workers in the restaurant industry–making it one of the largest workforces in the U.S–the restaurant industry employs seven of the ten lowest-paying occupations, according to a May 2012 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s easy to see why: The minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 per hour, and has been for the last 22 years.
“I know of full-time restaurant workers sleeping under a bridge because they don’t earn enough to pay rent,” says Saru. “Their entire salary goes to taxes, and they have nothing to take home at the end of the month, outside of the tips they make. Asking someone to earn their living off the tips paid by customers is extremely dehumanizing and makes them vulnerable to harassment.”
Saru’s charming demeanor offsets the anger and passion she brings to her work. The problem doesn’t end with low-wages; upward mobility and equal rights for non-white immigrant workers are practically nonexistent in the industry. “They are stuck behind the kitchen door all their lives despite having the experience and skill to run the restaurant. Sexually harassment of women, screaming racial epithets at immigrant workers, and throwing plates at their faces are common occurrences,” she says, adding that such incidents take place whether the restaurant is five-star rated or a diner.
The direct correlation between a satisfied workforce and improved productivity is not just a management theory but an essential ingredient for a stronger bottom line. Nor is it good to have sick and unhappy workers—especially for customers who might be eating in restaurants where the workers can’t afford to take care of their own health. Guaranteeing restaurant workers a livable minimum wage with paid sick days is on ROCU’s immediate agenda. “Ultimately, it’s better for the employers, and of course for customers,” Saru says. Many restaurant owners who treat their workers fairly are running very profitable businesses—so it can be done. Over 100 employers are now part of the ROCU network, and are contributing in training and supporting the cause for the workers.
ROCU and its activities have apparently ruffled The National Restaurants Association (NRA). “I call them the other NRA,” Saru says with a laugh. “They’ve been trying to shut me down for the last ten years. It’s all about power and control. They struck a deal behind closed doors back in 1996 with Congress and got the minimum wage frozen at $2.13. You can imagine the extreme power they have to be able to be the only industry in the world to win exemptions from paying their own workers.”
Many NRA-supported news columns and websites have attacked her work, and Saru sometimes worries for the safety of her family. She currently lives in Oakland, California with her two daughters, ages one and three, and her husband, Zachary Norris, who heads the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “Once, a picture of me holding my baby was copied from my Twitter feed and published on a webpage that has attacked me for years. I don’t want my children to bear the burden of what I do, but I know that my work is for them as well,” she says softly.
And then she quotes Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.”
Want to get involved?
The mission of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United is to improve wages and working conditions for the nation’s restaurant workforce. We are 13,000 restaurant workers, 100 high-road employers, thousands of engaged consumers united for raising restaurant industry standards.LEARN MORE
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