Labor of Love

The implications of food go far beyond nourishment.

April 16, 2010

Photo by Stacey Vaeth González

Bonnie Kwon is prepared to cook and defend. In 2009, she co-founded the District of Columbia branch of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), a national organization that advocates for better conditions for restaurant workers. She’s also a labor organizer, a lawyer and a host of legendary home-cooked Sunday dinners. She recently spoke with Hyphen about the facts behind the food.

How did you become interested in restaurant organizing?

My mom grew up in a family that treasured food and food customs. But it wasn’t until I got into women’s studies in college that I started to understand that food was one way my mother and grandmother expressed their power in a patriarchal family. Later, law school started to change my view of the world from gender to class analysis. It’s about access to income — and access to income is directly tied to access to food.

Tell us about the work that you do.

There are over 13.1 million food service workers in the US, making it cumulatively the largest private sector employer in the country. But there is practically no research on workers.

ROC does worker-led, participatory surveys. For example, we recently surveyed undocumented workers and found many were paid just $1,500 a month to work 10- to 12-hour days, seven days a week. We’ve been able to show in New York that the restaurants with the most labor violations also have the most difficulty complying with health and safety codes, because people are rushed and laws are being disrespected.

The vision is to organize a food workers’ alliance to bridge the entire food system, from farming all the way to distributing, manufacturing, packaging and restaurant service work. We would like to create a seal showing that each hand that has interacted with your food was justly treated. Finally, we’re sponsoring a bill that would increase the federal tipped minimum wage to 70 percent of regular minimum wage. That would more than double what restaurant workers receive before tips, from $2.13 to $5.08 an hour.

How has the rise of celebrity chefs impacted restaurant labor rights?

When we talk about local foods and wonderful restaurants, most people don’t think about the conditions of the workers. I know I didn’t before I began this work. In New York, we had campaigns against Daniel Boulud, a five-star chef who was discriminating against workers. A lot of these celebrity chefs on the Food Network have really bad working conditions for their employees.  (Editor’s Note: Boulud settled a lawsuit filed by eight workers and backed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that accused him of discrimination. He denied that he discriminated but agreed to pay the workers $80,000 and have his promotion policy monitored by the EEOC and the state of New York.)

Has your work changed the way you go out to eat?

When I step into a restaurant, I immediately look at the waitstaff to see if it’s diverse. I look in terms of race, gender and age. Then, I try to think about the complexity of the place, remembering that it’s not just one person who is serving you. All these different components are working together. 

This work makes me more aware as a consumer, personally. It’s also made me have a lot of debates about whether I should continue eating meat. But that’s a whole other area of food policy. It’s hard because I really love meat [laughs].

Talk about discrimination in restaurant labor.

ROC just published a report called “The Great Service Divide.” About 20 percent of restaurant jobs pay a living wage, but these jobs are mostly front of the house: bartenders and servers. In some very high-end restaurants, those people can make over $100,000 a year. So we lead classes to teach low-income workers, women and people of color to upgrade their skills and transition to front-of-the-house jobs.

Our research in New York found that a white worker has twice the chance of a person of color to obtain one of those positions, even with the exact same — and often even fewer — qualifications. We sent out people with similar qualifications to apply for the same jobs. Many Latino workers tell us employers will only consider them for dishwasher or busser jobs, which is pretty brazen. We see that a lot in Asian-owned restaurants. Many Asian restaurant owners have a preference for Asians or Asian Americans at the front of the house.

What does Asian American food mean to you?

It is a political construct, but there is a kinship between Asian cuisines. Even though you and I don’t share the same country of origin, there are a lot of shared experiences and similarities in the ways this country has interacted with our families.

When we hold these Sunday meals at our house, it’s a good feeling. So when I think about Asian America, I don’t necessarily think about my family. I think about the family we have here in DC, the community we are making now. 

Food is so powerful. When you break bread with someone, you’re less likely to do them wrong. On a really basic level, when I host a meal and provide food for someone to nourish their body, they’re trusting me. If we could bump that up just a little bit more and start thinking about our decisions as political beings when we choose to eat somewhere, it could be that much more powerful.


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Nina F. Ichikawa

Food & Agriculture Editor

Nina F. Ichikawa writes on food, agriculture and Asian American issues. She graduated U.C. Berkeley and Meiji Gakuin University in food policy, and her education also includes working as a restaurant dishwasher, making corsages at her family's 107-year-old flower shop and helping to establish the nation's first high school Asian American Studies program. She was a 2011-2013 Food and Community Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Twitters: @ninaeats.