Restaurant workers’ organization advocates labor rights

The sound of knife blades being sharpened weaved in and out of interview and conversation sound bites, as a discussion was held on Thursday, May 3 at the Pete and Susan Art Gallery on the current conditions of restaurant workers in Los Angeles. Two long sheets of metal were nailed across the wall of the gallery, and directly below them, a steel cart held pots and pans of all sizes. On the metal sheets were scattered pieces of paper with different quotes. Meant as a revelation of restaurant workers’ thoughts, one of them read, “you can’t ask for a raise, if you ask, if you demand, they’ll show you the door.”

After seeing her partner go through wage theft, discrimination, and indifference for many years as a restaurant worker, Christina Sanchez was motivated to create Break/Pausa, an innovative artistic project meant to be a “dialogical investigation” into the lives of immigrant restaurant workers living in Los Angeles.

“My partner has worked in the restaurant industry for 14 years and has experienced overtime pay violations, shifts without rest, and split shifts without compensation,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez explained that her project is aimed at engaging the most hidden and marginalized people of this workforce, the workers behind closed doors, “through informal interviews, performative interventions, and dialogue.” In collaboration with the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles (ROC LA), she plans to expose unethical employers and assist the lives of restaurant workers who aren’t aware of their rights.

The voices heard during the discussion were sound bites from interviews taken from restaurant workers who volunteered to have their voices heard while at work. At the event, ROC LA members were not shy to share their experiences in the restaurant business. One member stood up in front of the podium to speak of his experience, saying his life had taken a different turn since he joined ROC LA.

Hugo Aleman said he had gained a lot of knowledge and understanding of the workplace from the training he has received through ROC LA.  According to Aleman, he has learned through his education, that caring for others doesn’t mean you can’t care for yourself as well.

“I have enriched myself with a different experience. I saw the opportunity to care about someone else and how they can move up, without going through the same struggle that I have gone through,” Aleman added. “There are many people like me that don’t know of their rights.”

According ROC LA National High Road Coordinator, Cathy Dang, ROC went national after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.  During that time it had become difficult for many in the restaurant industry to find well-paying jobs. Dang became part of the staff of ROC LA after working in the restaurant industry and being unhappy with her working conditions.

“I experienced the hardship of the worker, and now I want to change the industry,” Dang said.

According to ROC LA’s website, a comprehensive study was conducted in 2011 called ‘Behind the Kitchen Door.’ The research consisted of 502 Los Angeles workers' surveys, 30 workers' interviews, 33 employers' interviews, and government data analysis - all resulting in the following:

The median wage among L.A. restaurant workers is $9.24 per hour. Forty four and one tenth of a percent of workers have experienced overtime violations. 89.4 percent of restaurant workers do not receive paid sick days, and white workers disproportionately hold the higher paying restaurant jobs in L.A. Immigrant workers make a median wage of $9.50 per hour, while white workers have an average wage of  $12.91 per hour.

According to Dang, ROC LA has about 400 members, and they plan to gain more by approaching workers on the street and informing them of bartending and fine dining classes offered for free through ROC LA to low wage workers. Meanwhile, ROC LA members continue to attend meetings and special events to help spread the word about the services provided to restaurant workers and the change they aim to achieve in the restaurant industry.