Unlike your local carwash, where worker exploitation is laid bare on street corners in broad daylight, injustice in the restaurant industry occurs behind the scenes. So you have to, well, go behind the kitchen door to see what really happens.

That is precisely what the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan (more commonly known as ROC-MI) and the Southeast Michigan Restaurant Industry Coalition did. This past February, they published “Behind the Kitchen Door: Inequality & Opportunity in Metro Detroit’s Growing Restaurant Industry,” a report that exposed the extent to which restaurant malpractice in the Metro Detroit area really occurs.

Based on data from 37 interviews with employers, 32 interviews with restaurant workers and 501 worker surveys, the study found that workers of color are disproportionately affected with respect to wage violations and other abuses. 31 percent of employees reported working overtime without being compensated and 81.4 percent of workers didn’t receive health insurance through their employers. Similar studies were conducted across the nation, highlighting the prevalence of restaurant worker exploitation.

Andiamo, an Italian restaurant in Dearborn, Mich., is the poster child of restaurant worker abuse in the Metro Detroit area. The Metro Times reported in January that Andiamo failed to meet with eight workers to address their grievances — including $125,000 worth of back wages and discrimination based on race, gender and national origin, followed by illegal retaliation. In response, the workers, with the support of ROC-MI, turned to protesting and lawsuits.

Despite rampant exploitation, though, there are steps that can be taken to improve the plight of workers in the restaurant industry and elsewhere.

First, the minimum wage must be increased. Currently, the federal minimum wage stands at $7.25. Minimum wage for tipped employees, meanwhile, is only $2.13 per hour. Relying on tips to compensate for a dearth of wages is risky business — especially since tips vary “depending on broader economic trends, from season to season and from shift to shift,” according to the National Employment Law Project. While the federal minimum wage was slightly raised in 2009, the tipping wage has remained frozen since 1991.

In addition to raising wages, “Behind the Kitchen Door” delivers sound proposals, like providing paid sick days, granting workers the right to organize and penalizing employer discrimination while promoting model employer practices.

In terms of policy, passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which supports workers’ right to unionize, and the Dream Act, which is a step toward a more humane immigration policy, are in order, as well as legislation that makes education and occupational training — and by extension, upward mobility — more accessible.

Clearly, the restaurant industry must reform, but we know that real change will not come out of thin air. We must fight for it. Organizations like ROC-MI — with its research, rallies and, in due course, justice for the workers at Andiamo — illustrate the steps that can be taken to fight for change in the industry. In the end, change will only come if we demand it. It’s incumbent on us as college students, voters and citizens (and yes, at times, as consumers) to tell the restaurant industry that it has crossed the line and that we won’t yield in our struggle for workers’ rights.

Whether those workers stand on our neighborhood street corners washing cars or are tucked away toiling in an anonymous factory, farm or kitchen, let us do what we can to make their lives better. This week, from March 28th to April 4th, is the Student Labor Week of Action — the perfect time to reflect on what we have done and to envision what we can do to fight for worker justice and, in turn, a better society for all.

If you’re up for it, go to the Cube any Friday at 5:45 p.m. — until justice is served, anyway — and get a ride to the protest at Andiamo. Or talk to the janitors on campus to see what’s ailing them (trust me, it won’t take long) and then stage a protest against the administration. Join SOLE in their fight for sweat-free University apparel. Or work with a union over the summer and help organize workers yourself. Craft policy recommendations through the Roosevelt Institution and then lobby your representatives like hell until they push those measures through. Do it yourself, if you have to. Just remember that there has never been a better time than now, here at the University, to act on what you believe in, to stand up against injustice and to be sure there’s plenty to go around.

David Bennett is an LSA senior and co-director of the Roosevelt Institution’s Center on Urban Planning and Community Development.

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