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PORTSIDE  February 2012, Week 3

PORTSIDE February 2012, Week 3

Subject:

Is Your Local Restaurant Relying on Exploited Women's Labor?

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Date:

Mon, 20 Feb 2012 22:34:21 -0500

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Is Your Local Restaurant Relying on Exploited
Women's Labor? 

By Michelle Chen, 
Ms. Blog Posted on February 16, 2012, 
Printed on February 20, 2012

http://www.alternet.org/story/154171/is_your_local_restaurant_relying_on_exploited_women%27s_labor

Next time you plunk down some change on the table
before leaving a restaurant, think about what might be
behind that service with a smile. A new study warns
that when Americans eat out, they feed into an industry
fueled by exploitation and rampant discrimination
against women.

The report, published by the labor advocacy group
Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) in
partnership with a coalition of labor and women's
rights groups, details the restaurant industry's secret
recipe for fattening profits: low wages, harsh working
conditions, erratic hours and multiple racial and
gender barriers to job advancement.

In a testimony in the report, Claudia Munoz recalled
how her job at a national pancake chain restaurant in
Texas demanded round-the-clock hours without overtime
pay. Scrounging for tips, she earned as little as $160
per week. Munoz says:

I had to eat less than $6.50 for the employee meal. ... I
could only afford pancakes. If you were on the schedule
for only 5 hours, you couldn't get a meal. There were
days when I wouldn't eat all day.

Surrounding her was a cross-section of the country's
forgotten workforce:

There were a lot of older people--women in their 50's.
They had children, families, some were single mothers ...
and $2.13 plus tips was all they had. ... It really
opened my eyes. It was Latinos cooking, white women
working graveyard shifts, men working during the day. I
saw the racism, sexism, and low wages in the industry.
Everything I remember from that place was horrible.

It's no secret that typical restaurant work is
stressful and poorly paid, but it's easy to dismiss as
a side gig or a way-station on the road to more stable
work. However, in today's sour economy, as Munoz
witnessed, tough jobs in eating establishments are
often the only way for struggling workers and their
families to scrape by.

Wages are low for all restaurant workers: About four in
ten earn at or below the minimum wage. But women in the
industry have it especially hard, according to the
study. Women make about 79 cents to every dollar earned
by men. While this is approximately the national gender
wage gap, but the ROC report points out a key
distinction when it comes to the restaurant industry:
"In many sectors, lower wages for women are often a
product of discriminatory employer practices, but in
the restaurant industry, lower wages for women are also
set by law."

Federal law makes the labor of tipped workers
especially cheap (assuming that tips will make up the
difference): a subminimum wage of just $2.13 compared
to the standard $7.25 for other sectors. And of
restaurant workers who rely on tips, most are women,
concentrated in jobs like serving and tending the
counter.

The lower-wage tier for restaurant work reflects a
legacy of discrimination in labor regulation.
Historically, sectors relying heavily on women and
people of color, such as domestic work and farm work,
have been excluded from critical labor protections.

But the inequity restaurant workers face isn't just a
bread-and-butter issue of wages. A national survey of
several thousand restaurant workers found that:

90 percent lack paid sick days and 90 percent do not
receive health insurance through their employers. One
third of all female restaurant workers ... lack any kind
of health care, whether provided by their employer or
otherwise.

Families suffer when parents can't afford to take a day
off to care for an ill child. And when sick
food-service employees drag themselves to work,
everyone is at risk. A majority of restaurant workers
reported "going to work and cooking, preparing, or
serving food while sick," according to ROC's study-a
startling 70 percent among women. Imagine a bout of the
flu in a hot, crowded kitchen, and how many hands
touched your salad on its way to the table.

While they're needlessly exposed to health risks, women
are also acutely vulnerable to being sexually violated
at work. According to ROC's national survey of about
4,300 restaurant workers, some ten percent "reported
that they or a co-worker had experienced sexual
harassment in their restaurant." The climate of abuse,
the report found, is aggravated by employers' failure
to provide adequate workplace trainings or enforce
formal rules against harassment.

ROC's research reveals that the day-to-day hardships
and indignities of restaurant work are compounded by
long-term structural barriers of gender and racial
segregation, which keep many women in marginal,
irregular jobs with little hope of moving up from, say,
server to manager.

So what can be done to fix the restaurant industry?
Some states have already set higher wage floors for
restaurant work. If the federal government were to do
so, raising the national subminimum wage to $5.08, it
would immediately boost the pay of an estimated 837,000
workers, most of them women, according to ROC. And that
would simultaneously shrink the gender wage gap in the
industry by one-fifth.

On the family-leave front, there have been some state
and local initiatives to mandate paid sick leave for
all workers, including a landmark ordinance passed a
few years in San Francisco, which has been championed
by public health advocates with broad support from
local employers. But lawmakers around the country have
little appetite for helping sick workers recover. A
proposal similar to San Francisco's policy has stalled
in New York City, where nearly two-thirds of low-income
workers don't get paid sick time, according to the
Community Service Society of New York. Industry
advocates say more generous sick leave policies would
eat into profits. But an analysis by the Institute for
Women's Policy Research shows that expanding paid
medical leave could save the country over $1 billion
annually in healthcare costs.

For now, just as most of Claudia's customers probably
barely noticed the exhausted workers bustling around
them, the abuses throughout the restaurant industry
appear to be invisible to the political establishment.

Take action with the ROC and tell Congress on 2/13 to
raise the $2.13 subminimum wage for restaurant workers.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These
Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights
blog Working In These Times, Colorlines.com, and
Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has also appeared in
Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine,
cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach
her at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com. (c) 2012 Ms. Blog
All rights reserved. 

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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