When students sit down to eat, what goes on behind the kitchen doors? According to the Restaurant Workplace Project-Ann Arbor, in many restaurants, it’s nothing owners would be proud to share. The project’s aim is to raise awareness of the plight of the many poorly treated, low-wage workers in the city’s restaurants. This movement provides a unique opportunity for University students to come together with restaurant workers and the Ann Arbor community to give employees a voice. The exploitation of restaurant workers in Ann Arbor is a problem that can be remedied with increased consumer awareness and a commitment from restaurants to treat their employees fairly.
The group, founded by a handful of University students last semester, has a broad base of support from a variety of community members – University student groups, religious leaders and restaurant workers. Students surveyed immigrant workers and found, among other things, that one-third of workers do not receive the correct amount of pay, and almost half said they were not paid the same amount as native-born workers doing the same work.
The project aims to ensure the enforcement of federal and state laws that protect workers from exploitation. Mistreated workers are in a precarious situation – they risk job loss if they stand up for their rights, yet they continue to face employers’ abuse if they do not speak up, Several of the abused workers are also undocumented residents and therefore lack legal recourse and risk deportation if they stand up for themselves.
It should not take an organized movement to enforce labor laws and ensure employees’ rights. Yet the status quo – numerous claims of mistreatment, discrimination and illegal practices – is not acceptable. If the movement succeeds in creating a local version of the fair trade certification process, it can empower consumers to hold restaurants accountable. By providing a logo for restaurants that uphold their workers’ rights, the project could enable patrons to make informed decisions about where to spend their money. It would reward responsible business owners, whose establishments may charge slightly more but would ensure quality labor practices. And it would put pressure on owners reluctant to make changes.
Immigration and fair labor practices are issues that are just as relevant on a national scale as on the streets of Ann Arbor. As debate rages, students have the opportunity to directly influence the exploitation of immigrant workers in their own community. The problem is not just overseas or along the U.S.-Mexico border – it exists right here at home.
The restaurant workers may not always be seen, as many work in the kitchen lines or mop floors after closing. Their hardships, however, are a reality, and informed consumers can bring about change in these practices. The goal of the Restaurant Workplace Project is simple enough – enforce the law. And the solution is too: Provide consumers the information they need in order to make responsible choices.