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Challenging Injustice, Advancing Human Rights

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee advances human rights through grassroots collaborations.

Promoting Workers’ Rights and Fair Treatment

Stories of Hope: Saru Jayaraman and Fekkak Mamdouh

When you go out to eat, did you know that the person who serves your food might be getting paid only $2.13 per hour? And the cook that prepared your food might be sick but can't afford to take the day off? Fekkak Mamdouh and Saru Jayaraman, cofounders of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC-United), a UUSC partner, know these things and more. They can tell you that many restaurant workers don't earn enough to put food on their own families' tables. But what's exciting is that. Mamdouh and Saru are working together with restaurant workers across the country to change that, in ways that build community and empower people to take action. 

Mamdouh used to work at the Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center that was one of the most profitable restaurants in the world. On September 11, 2001, 73 of his coworkers — many of whom were immigrants — lost their lives and 300 more lost their jobs. When the owner of the restaurant refused to hire them back at a new restaurant, Mamdouh joined with Saru to start the Restaurant Opportunities Center. Mamdouh reflected, "It was really important for the Windows survivors to build something powerful and positive out of the September 11th tragedy. Starting ROC to improve conditions for all restaurant workers meant we were honoring our lost coworkers in the best way."

The former Windows workers got their jobs back, and restaurant workers from all over the country were calling ROC for help with workplace issues. After seven years of improving workplace conditions in New York City, Saru and Mamdouh went on to found the national ROC-United. Today ROC has more than 10,000 worker members in 19 cities nationwide. ROC-United confronts poor conditions that restaurant workers experience, from racial discrimination and sexual harassment to low wages and lack of basic benefits like paid sick days. Saru, a professor and lawyer, says, "This is something that always shocks people, but restaurant workers actually make less than all other occupations in the United States." And that's in one of the largest industries in the country that continues to grow each year.

ROC-United helps restaurant workers stand up for their rights in many ways. They do research to fully understand what restaurant workers are dealing with and try to get laws passed that will help improve the conditions. They organize actions against big restaurant companies that treat their workers poorly and help people convince those restaurants to offer fair wages and benefits. As Saru says, "When individuals come together, there is nothing that they can't do." [1] ROC-United also brings together restaurant owners who are already treating their employees well so that they can share what they do and become a model for other restaurants.

One of the most important parts of ROC-United's approach is getting the people who eat at restaurants involved, something that UUSC is excited to work on as part of its Choose Compassionate Consumption initiative. As consumers, you have power. With the information in ROC-United's National Diners' Guide, you can send a clear message to the restaurants you go to that you care about the workers feeding you. We are deeply interconnected with all the people who prepare and serve our food, and together with Mamdouh, Saru, and ROC-United, we can honor that connection by making real change.

All workers — including restaurant workers — deserve fair treatment that respects their human rights. As part of ROC-United, Mamdouh and Saru are using creative approaches to make that a reality. Make sure the work to empower consumers for economic justice continues by becoming a member of UUSC today.

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[1] "A dialogue with Fekkak Mamdouh and Saru Jayaraman," YouTube video, 5:45, posted by "AccidentalAmerican," September 15, 2008, http://youtu.be/uMD1IllKsbw.

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