The pace of modern life being quick and fast food and dining out being prevalent, the restaurant industry unsurprisingly is one of the largest employers in the United States.1 What should be shocking is that the practice of tipping restaurant servers is rooted in this country’s legacy of slavery.2 The logic of tipping—that servers make their wages based on the generosity of their customers rather than based on the duty of their employers to compensate them fairly—is at the core of the systemic exploitation of workers in this industry.3 The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) aims to refashion the restaurant industry into one in which working conditions are conducive to a life with dignity for workers. Through an unorthodox approach, ROC United has built a national food justice movement centered on worker justice.4
Building Power for Poor Restaurant Workers in the United States
Saru Jayaraman and Fekkak Mamdouh founded ROC as a worker center after 9/11 to support the workers from Windows on the World, the restaurant atop the North Tower of the World Trade Center.5 Since then, ROC has expanded to become a network of chapters tied into a national organization, ROC United, operating in major cities throughout the country.6 In the last 15 years, ROC United has won at least 12 workplace justice campaigns, securing $10 million in back pay for workers, and has improved workplace policies in high-profile restaurants owned by celebrity chefs such as Mario Batali and Daniel Boulud.7 ROC United has also created job training and placement programs, conducted worker-centered research and policy work, and opened model restaurants in New York City and New Orleans.8
The practice of tipping restaurant servers is rooted in this country’s legacy of slavery.
ROC United is structured as an “industry-based worker center,” and its social change methods focus on transforming the restaurant industry. Unlike traditional union organizing, ROC United does not seek collective bargaining agreements with employers. Instead the organization focuses on improving industrywide working conditions by engaging workers and employers based on a mutual understanding and commitment to just wages and adequate working conditions. For example, ROC United has created a network of “high-road employers” who are committed to adopting just labor practices of fair wages, giving workers benefits such as paid sick leave, and offering opportunities for professional advancement, particularly for low-wage immigrant workers of color and women. ROC United’s high-road employer network is an antidote to the National Restaurant Association, the powerful restaurant lobby that has succeeded in keeping frozen at $2.13 an hour for 20 years the federal minimum wage for tipped workers.9 Today ROC United has 18,000 restaurant worker members, 150 high-road employers, and thousands of consumer members throughout the country.10
Restaurant servers suffer from three times the poverty rate and use food stamps at twice the rate of the rest of the national workforce.
Yet it takes more than a voluntary network of employers to transform the restaurant industry. A key component of ROC United’s strategy is to dismantle the heart of exploitation in the restaurant industry: inadequate wages that lock workers into poverty and perpetuate vulnerabilities to discrimination.11 To do so, ROC United is looking to harness international human rights to support its domestic One Fair Wage campaign.12 International human rights establish affirmative duties of the state to guarantee individuals a life with dignity.13 International law secures these basic guarantees through the rights to just remuneration, health, food, protections for the family, and protection from discrimination on the basis of race and gender.14 ROC United’s One Fair Wage campaign is essentially a human rights campaign. It seeks to raise wages in the restaurant industry to alleviate poverty among its workers and facilitate worker access to all their human rights.
Worker Justice = Food Justice
Alma Gonzalez (not her real name) has worked in restaurants in California’s San Francisco Bay Area for over a decade. An indigenous woman from Oaxaca, Mexico, Alma immigrated to the United States in the 1980s to support her two children. Like most restaurant workers in this country, she has endured a series of labor rights abuses, sexual harassment by managers and coworkers, wage theft, and discrimination as she watched her white colleagues with less tenure and experience receive raises and promotions while her career stood still. Most recently her employer fired her after she reported to him that the chef had kicked a worker for accidentally dropping a box of onions.
Abuses such as these are commonplace. The people who serve and prepare our food in restaurants across the country too frequently toil in sweatshoplike working conditions and are expected to endure such treatment silently.15 Workers such as Alma—low-income immigrant women of color—are profoundly vulnerable to this exploitation.16 Alma’s story illustrates the interconnected nature of the multiple human rights violations that restaurant workers endure. The poverty wages that lock Alma and others into exploitation are a key feature of this system.
The United States operates under a two-tiered wage structure in which tipped restaurant workers earn below the minimum wage in an overwhelming majority of states.17 With intense lobbying from the National Restaurant Association, the federal subminimum wage has been kept at $2.13 since 1991.18 Only seven states pay tipped and nontipped workers the same minimum wage.19 The remaining states are tied to a wage system developed after the abolition of slavery and premised on the notion that newly freed slaves should not be compensated for their labor.20 Of the 52 states and territories, 45 operate in a two-wage system that pays tipped workers between $2.13 and $7 an hour, a rate below the federal and state minimum wages.
ROC United partnered with the International Human Rights Law Clinic and the Food Labor Center, both housed at the University of California, Berkeley, to study the effects of the subminimum wage on restaurant workers. The two-wage structure constitutes a human rights violation because it perpetuates exploitative working conditions for low-wage workers, particularly women and people of color, the yearlong study found.21 Restaurant servers suffer from three times the poverty rate and use food stamps at twice the rate of the rest of the national workforce.22 However, restaurant workers are not the only ones who pay the price for low wages; higher poverty rates lead to higher use of social services. In fact, these poverty wages essentially equate to a subsidy from taxpayers to employers.23
The two-tiered wage system ensures the subordination and continued exploitation in the restaurant industry of low-wage workers, particularly women and workers of color.
Lifting the Floor and Sealing the Cracks: Eliminating the Subminimum Wage and Advancing a Human Rights Framework Domestically
Alma began working in the restaurant industry because of limited job opportunities available to her as an undocumented immigrant. In fact, the restaurant industry overwhelmingly relies on a vulnerable immigrant workforce to get away with paying chronically poverty wages.24 To Alma, preparing food is deeply connected to her memory of home. However, she soon realized not only that her role in the kitchen was subjugated but also that she was expected to become invisible and not question the exploitation she and her coworkers endured. She worked 10- to 12-hour shifts, without breaks, while bearing with mounting sexual harassment and discrimination. When she did speak up, it was in defense of her male coworker, whom the chef had physically abused. For her bravery, she was fired.25
Alma’s experience is the norm for many restaurant workers in the United States, especially for those who work in states that operate under the subminimum wage. Living off tips is economically unstable since tips fluctuate daily; it also puts these workers in vulnerable positions that exacerbate exploitation—such as sexual harassment.26 Thus the two-tiered wage system ensures the subordination and continued exploitation in the restaurant industry of low-wage workers, particularly women and workers of color.27
The right to work is a universal human right enshrined in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights.28 The right to work means that countries have an obligation to “ensure that all workers are paid a wage sufficient to enable them and their family to have access to an adequate standard of living.”29 The right to work is key in that it ties wages to workers’ standard of welfare and prevents a race to the bottom for employers of low-wage workers. The International Labor Organization promotes minimum wages as “one element in a policy designed to overcome poverty and to ensure the satisfaction of the needs of all workers and their families, [and its] fundamental purpose … should be to give wage earners necessary social protection as regards minimum permissible levels of wages.”30 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a binding agreement, but it is recognized as the international consensus on fundamental rights. The United States has signed but not ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural, and Social Rights, and this means that the United States recognizes the right to work and is bound to the fundamental aims of the treaty.
Not only does the subminimum wage structure violate the right to work, but also because of its disproportionate impact on workers of color it violates international human rights standards prohibiting discrimination.31 The subminimum wage is the cornerstone of a system of exploitation that violates numerous human rights of workers such as Alma.32
Raising the minimum wage to a living wage is a human rights issue that can have profound effects on the lives of low-wage workers.
International human rights standards give advocates the frameworks and a vision to advocate beyond a minimum wage and to make substantive new demands for low-wage workers in the United States. The consistent human rights violations that workers experience throughout the country can be alleviated by an industrywide shift to raise the minimum wage and create a unitary wage for tipped and nontipped workers—a unitary wage which would approach a living wage in the restaurant industry. Success in this effort could provide a model for transforming the U.S. economy as a whole.
ROC United’s Human Rights Advocacy: Advancing a Right to a Life with Dignity
Through its One Fair Wage campaign, ROC United seeks to eliminate the subminimum wage and raise the minimum wage nationally by targeting key states and localities.33 Raising the minimum wage to a living wage is a human rights issue that can have profound effects on the lives of low-wage workers.34 Eliminating the subminimum wage is critical to tackling poverty in a majority of states operating under the two-tiered system.
The restaurant industry is one of the most vibrant in California. Although restaurant owners stand to benefit from the growing economy, low-wage immigrant workers of color have historically endured increased levels of exploitation through industry booms—from low wages and lack of benefits to persistent occupational segregation and discrimination, racial and gender discrimination, and sexual harassment. Women workers of color are precariously situated in the restaurant industry because of the intersectional layers of discrimination they face.35
In California most restaurant workers are Latino or Latina, and over one-third of them are immigrants. They work under “the highest levels of directly observable occupational segregation” in the restaurant industry, “while African Americans are largely absent from [higher-paying] full service restaurant occupations and overrepresented in limited-service fast food occupations.”36 Furthermore, California just enacted the highest-minimum-wage law of any state; the law raises the minimum wage to $15 an hour.37 Because California does not have a two-tiered wage structure, the new law includes tipped workers.
Eliminating the subminimum wage is critical to tackling poverty in a majority of states operating under the two-tiered system.
However, immigrant low-wage restaurant workers of color in California suffer from the highest poverty levels and face significant barriers to accessing this higher minimum wage.38 ROC United has found that employers frequently do not inform workers that the minimum wage has increased, and even when workers become aware of the new minimum-wage law, they are unlikely to demand an increase for fear of retaliation. These workers have few employment opportunities; this limitation forces them to stay in these jobs and earn subminimum wages. Their vulnerability especially increases if they lack a documented status.
By organizing workers and advocating higher labor protection for workers, ROC United is advancing a human rights advocacy framework to ensure that low-wage restaurant workers can access a living wage. One of the biggest fights in California will be the enforcement of the new minimum wage. Two California chapters of ROC United are engaged in mobilizing workers to hold employers accountable and will embark on popular education workshops to inform workers of their rights. Workers are already leading in mobilizing against wage theft and have been using human rights discourse to do so.
ROC United plans to help professionalize the restaurant industry to remove the stigma that working in the industry is not respectable. The lack of respect leads to a lack of urgency and lack of demanded rights. ROC United seeks to implement existing laws in a meaningful way and wants restaurant workers to have the same dignity that people in other industries have and the ability to maintain a prosperous quality of life.Download this article