331: Behind the Kitchen Door by Saru Jayaraman

by Gerard


331.761647950973: Jayaraman, Saru. Behind the Kitchen Door. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 2013. 191 pp. ISBN 978-0-8014-5172-0.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 300: Social Sciences
  • 330: Economics
  • 331: Labor economics
  • 331.7: Labor economics by industry and occupation
  • 331.76: Specific industries and occupations
  • 331.761: Industries and occupations other than extractive, manufacturing, or construction
  • +647.95: Management of eating and drinking places
  • +0973: United States

I am guilty of a crime. It’s mostly a crime of omission or ignorance, but it is an offense nonetheless. When I go out to a restaurant, I have never concerned myself with whether the establishment has fair management or hiring practices. I never bother to find out whether anybody working that day is sick and had to come to work for fear of losing pay or their job entirely. I hardly notice that skin color tends to get darker as you approach the back of the house. But Saru Jayaraman has. Her book Behind the Kitchen Door and her organization (the Restaurant Opportunity Centers United) try to lift the veil surrounding food service workers in order to make the entire world of outside-the-home dining sustainable for all, from the food vendors to the workers to management, and even to the customer.

Jayaraman’s crusade for restaurant workers’ rights began with September 11th. When the Windows on the World restaurant fell with everything else in the Towers, dozens of displaced restaurant workers had to wait for re-employment. When the owners built a new establishment, many of the old workers were not hired back because they “didn’t have enough experience.” Never mind that they had already worked for this employer before, some people for many years. Jayaraman, with the help of Fekkak Mamdouh, began a protest campaign and organization that helped the workers get rehired.

Then, others came for her help. They were tired of being discriminated against, tired of harassment, tired of unequal pay, and tired of wage gouging and tip theft by their employers. The ROC organized studies and research into which restaurants were the worst offenders and petitioned, through either civil or legal measures, for remuneration, for fair compensation, or for more transparent hiring policies to be enacted at many restaurants. In this book, we get many stories of restaurant workers who faced hurdle after hurdle to break into the industry only to face rampant inequality once they get the job.

Granted, the book tends to read like one long infomercial for a non-profit organization, but the stories need telling. I’m not about to lie and say that I’ll be doing thorough investigations of a place before I eat there, but I will be a bit more attentive to the work atmosphere, noticing who’s where and how the restaurant presents its workforce. It’s hard to climb onto a high horse after so much nonchalance on the matter, but Jaramayan makes a very good case for serious reform in the food service industry, and it would least behoove us to listen to what she has to say.