First Person

What’s behind the kitchen door in New Orleans?

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A prayer vigil in support of restaurant workers was held recently in front of Tony Moran, a restaurant in New Oleans
A prayer vigil in support of restaurant workers was held recently in front of Tony Moran's Restaurant in New Oleans.

Oxfam America’s Andrew Blejwas reports on the findings of a new study on the disparities restaurant workers face.

Finding good food in New Orleans is like catching a string of beads during Mardi Gras: stand in the right place and it’s likely to hit you in the face. From Creole to Cajun—and everything in between—the city’s food is as diverse and interesting as its population. And just as New Orleans’s food mirrors the diversity of American culture, the conditions facing restaurant staff in the city reflect American disparities broadly.

A new series of reports, Behind the Kitchen Door, outlines the dramatic racial, gender, and economic disparity among workers in Orleans and four other American cities: Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Portland, Maine. The reports are by the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), an Oxfam America partner in New Orleans. Based on surveys of more than 2,500 workers, the reports reveal two main findings, according to Jose Oliva, ROC’s national policy coordinator: “One, the restaurant industry is resilient, even in the face of this Great Recession. The other is that these are not the kind of jobs we want to have in America when we come out of the recession.”

The reports reveal a number of startling figures about the jobs that are available:

• The median hourly wage for white workers is $12.33, versus $8.50 for African Americans.
• 60 percent of those who reported working overtime without compensation were people of color
• Women experience labor law violations almost three times as frequently as men
• 58 percent of all immigrant workers experienced labor law violations

And on and on and on.

It’s something many of us have seen and I suspect most of us acknowledge when we sit down at a nice restaurant where even the staff seems segregated. The “front of the house” with the wait staff is predominantly white while the “back of the house” with the cooks, dishwashers, and others is predominantly black.

These workplace disparities are something we grapple with in the US more broadly, which is why Oxfam has a decent work program focused on the US.

And these disparities are why Oxfam is encouraging support of ROC’s campaign for justice for restaurant workers. In New Orleans, the ROC campaign is supporting six workers who filed a lawsuit demanding back pay and fair treatment from Tony Moran’s restaurant, where they all worked. “We are asking the company to treat all workers with equity, dignity and respect,” said Van Joseph, who used to work at the restaurant. “It is critical that we improve the working conditions for ALL restaurant workers, and have a job that offers equal opportunity regardless of race.” 

Those interested in supporting the campaign can write a letter to restaurant management. The address is: Tony Moran’s Restaurant, 240 Bourbon Street, New Orleans, LA , 70130. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+