We tend not to realize that diversity is not the same as equity — that simply seeing a lot of restaurant workers from different backgrounds doesn’t mean that restaurant workers have equal opportunities to advance to jobs that will allow them to support themselves and their families.
I had to read this book after attending the Facing Race conference this year, which featured several members of ROC United, the national union that Jayaraman co-founded for restaurant workers in the wake of 9/11. Jayaraman herself is a fantastic public speaker, and I couldn’t wait to get back home and read her book at the end of the conference.
Behind The Kitchen Door is a collection of stories really, powerful stories from restaurant workers that ROC has worked with throughout the years. ROC’s focus is on creating equal working conditions and career advancement opportunities for all restaurant workers, so many of the stories highlight the unfair treatment that people of color, and particularly women of color, face on the job everyday.
There are horrifying accounts of wage theft, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and chronic financial instability. Jayaraman points to the lack of leave that causes many restaurant workers to keep serving, even while sick. She also brings up many times the astoundingly low federal minimum wage for restaurant workers ($2.13!!!), since theoretically workers are making up the rest of the gap between that and the normal minimum wage through tips. Jayaraman shows pretty convincingly that this frequently does not happen, and that employers often do not compensate the difference as they are supposed to.
I really liked that the focus of Jayaraman’s book and life’s work is on such a universal job. While I personally have never worked in a restaurant, I know many friends that have. Many can relate to the stories she’s telling and the difference between those of us for whom restaurant work is a step along the road to a better career, versus those who rely on the industry for much of their lives.
One interesting bit of information that I learned from the Facing Race conference is that ROC United is piloting an app that diners can use when they go out to eat to report on the perceived race of the wait staff and kitchen staff. It’s built to work well with Yelp and Twitter, and seems like an interesting way to unobtrusively bring to light the colorism that the industry struggles with (whiter staff get to serve while darker staff are stuck in the kitchen, without regard to qualifications).
There’s a bit of repetition of certain facts throughout the book, but it’s a really worthwhile read for the stories alone. It’s a good practice in empathy to read about other people’s lives and think about how we can as consumers support restaurants that exemplify the fair hiring and labor practices that we want to see while boycotting or reprimanding those who don’t.