Restaurant workers: the forgotten victims of exploitation

Next time you visit your favourite restaurant, or sit down to enjoy a take away, spare a thought for those toiling in the kitchens. Particularly if you happen to be in Ireland, where the pressure group Migrants Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) have been campaigning around the issue tirelessly.

Earlier this year they released an eye opening film, Food for Thought, highlighting exploitation and non compliance with employment law for many migrant workers employed in the country’s restaurants.

Helen Lowry, from the group, says: ‘Every day in the centre we are seeing the impact of the recession on the lives of low wage migrant workers on a continuum of being treated slightly less favourably to situations of extreme exploitation. Non-compliance is bad for the economy; it hurts workers and undermines decent employers. We would like to see ethical consumption take root amongst Irish consumers and we believe there is an appetite for change.’

It’s not only cooks; those helping prepare, serve and clean eating houses are also suffering, according to the group. Ireland’s wider hospitality sector, including restaurants and hotels, employs over 130,000 people, with around 35% believed to be migrant workers.

MRCI earlier undertook detailed research into exploitation in the sector, with their subsequent report containing disturbing testimonies of a number of exploited workers. Edita’s story – she is from Lithuania – is typical:

I came to Ireland to build a better life. I came to here together with my daughter. I began working for a restaurant in Blanchardstown in County Dublin in January 2007. I got a job there to work as a kitchen porter. I did not receive a contract from my employer. I thought that my pay and hours would be worked out in time. I was desperate to find work because my English was not very good. I was told that I might be working more than 39 hours in a week.

When I started working I actually worked 12-14 hour days, five and sometimes six days per week. I worked every Sunday. The work was very difficult and heavy for me. I would only get breaks when things were not busy. I was not given proper protective clothing like good gloves and aprons to do the work in the kitchen. I felt that there were not proper mats and people were always slipping. The job created a lot of stress for me. A roster was posted up that had all my hours of work on it. But the payslips that I got at the end of the week did not match the number of hours that I actually worked.

I was paid €8.00 per hour for every hour that I worked up to 39 hours in a week. For all the hours after that my pay was cut down to €5 per hour. I did not receive any extra pay for work I did on Sundays or on bank holidays. I was not paid properly for my annual leave days. In the year I worked there I took a two week holiday but was only paid for one week. I felt like I was treated like a dog by my boss and supervisors. They were always yelling at us. The boss and the boss’s wife would say things like ‘you Lithuanians are stupid and crazy’.

I felt that we were treated differently than the Irish workers there. They were treated better. They got better hours and they were not bullied by the employer like we were. I was not happy with my working conditions and the way that I was being paid and treated. I raised all of these issues several times with the head chef who was my supervisor. I was told that if I was not happy with my working conditions I could go back to Lithuania and look for better conditions there. After one year I decided that I could no longer take it and I left.

Such exploitation is not limited to Ireland, of course. In the US, campaigner Saru Jayaraman recently lifted the lid on shocking conditions inside American restaurants in Behind the Kitchen Door, her groundbreaking book launched in association with the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. What about in the UK? Watch this space.

Useful links: 

Migrants Rights Centre Ireland

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