I Was an Undocumented Restaurant Worker

Here's how to improve kitchens for undocumented immigrants.

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Dec 20 2017, 9:00pm

Image via Getty Images.

The restaurant industry has been doing a bit of soul searching recently, with the end goal of asking questions about accountability, exploitation, toxic workplace behavior, the blurry line between personal and professional relationships, and the silencing of powerless voices. Restaurants can foster an environment as toxic as any corporate culture; the difference, I think, is that most people don’t spend their leisure time and money so intimately engaged with a workplace.

I worked in restaurant kitchens as quite a few people do—as an undocumented immigrant. The story of how someone exists, and thrives, in a nation hostile to undocumented immigrants is also a story about the food community, and what it has accomplished. The story is not always easy to tell, but I believe there is room for the kinds of narratives that are a little more nuanced. But we have to start somewhere. So, here are a few obvious statements.

Restaurants provide jobs. According to a study by The Pew Research Center, about 11% of restaurant jobs are held by undocumented immigrants. Entry into the restaurant industry is relatively simple, but the jobs offered also reflect the divides in society at large. Immigrants fill the lowest-paying jobs in the service industry. On one hand, this can be seen as a testament to the inclusive hiring practices of the restaurant industry, but on the other, it raises questions: Who gets hired? Who rises to higher-paying positions? Who is given the space to create and contribute, and who isn’t? Whose voice is being silenced using tradition and the establishment as an excuse? Who do we as consumers applaud? Our expectations as customers need to become more nuanced to accommodate changes in the narrative.

The story of how someone exists, and thrives, in a nation hostile to undocumented immigrants is also a story about the food community, and what it has accomplished.

Restaurants are collaborative, but not always supportive. Teamwork is paramount to the success of every single restaurant shift. A culture that respects that unity should be a common goal among restaurateurs, and should be a demand of ours as consumers. Income and access affect the choices we make, but every person that is part of the food community is also a customer in that industry. We have the power of choice and agency. The word “sustainability” is described as the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level. It is common in the food community to use the word sustainability to describe a commitment to the land, and to making choices that will inherently be good for the environment, for us. The workforce needs to be included in the definition of sustainability. It takes creating a healthy work environment that respects and values people. It starts from the top.

Restaurants reflect who we are and what we strive to be. I believe the restaurant industry is one place where the immigrant story can be articulated. The narratives we encounter are too often focused on the work being done, the role being filled. A myopic story, influenced by a culture of aggression and white male privilege—the powerful restaurateur, the brilliant head chef, the creative genius who has created a space to be an asshole, the fetishized bartender in his uniform—cheapens the depth and the complexity of everyone’s story (theirs included), as well as the stories of the establishments they represent. We have more stories to tell. The opportunity to include diverse voices is not an objective in and of itself; it is an opportunity to show the industry in less narrow terms.

A myopic story, influenced by a culture of aggression and white male privilege—the powerful restaurateur, the brilliant head chef, the creative genius who has created a space to be an asshole, the fetishized bartender in his uniform—cheapens the depth and the complexity of everyone’s story (theirs included), as well as the stories of the establishments they represent.

The food community has, more than most industries, acknowledged its inherent dependence on immigrants and undocumented labor. And yet, by selectively highlighting or preferencing certain voices over others, we create a dynamic that rewards bad behavior, makes accountability difficult, applauds competition over collaboration, and silences important participants of a community.

READ MORE: The Double Bind of Being a Woman of Color in the Food World

If indeed we do commit to building relationships with immigrant communities, and we do offer undocumented workers opportunities to participate in the broader economy, then why don’t we provide a template for other industries to question their workplace cultures and practices? Undocumented immigrants in other industries are in need of voices too. Shouldn’t we lead the way?

There is a language around immigrant experience in the restaurant industry that does drive some narratives. More can be done.