Labor advocates gather to discuss plight of food service workers

Injustice on Our Plates: How Conditions of Food Workers Affect Us All

University Capitol Centre, Room 2520-D — Saturday, Feb. 28 — 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Food workers and organizers across the spectrum will discuss the challenges of working in the food industry this Saturday at a one-day conference titled, “Injustice on Our Plates: How Conditions of Food Workers Affect Us All.”

Located on the second floor of Old Capitol Town Center (Room 2520-D) in downtown Iowa City, the event is free and open to the public, and will feature national and local leaders from every level of food service and the restaurant industry.

The keynote speaker will be Fekkak Mamdouh, a Morroccan-born immigrant who is the co-author of The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization.

Mamdouh was a headwaiter at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center before Sept. 11, 2001.

When Windows on the World owners started a new restaurant on Times Square, Mamdou and surviving immigrant co-workers’ applications were rejected.

In reaction to the snub, Mamdouh, with an immigration lawyer named Saru Jayaraman, started a restaurant workers’ rights group called Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC). Today ROC has offices in over 10 cities including Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans and Los Angeles.

One of the major focuses for ROC has been increasing tip minimum wages for food servers. Their work has paid off in New York where this week Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state’s tip minimum would increase to $7.50 by the end of 2015. The federal minimum tip wage is $2.13, Iowa’s is $4.35.

Mamdouh pointed out that women who earn their money in tips live in poverty at twice the rate of the rest of the US work force, and they collect food stamps at double the rate.

“As customers we pay their salary and then as taxpayers we pay for their welfare also. Why is this?” Mamdouh asked. “Why are the customers paying their salary?”

Higher tip minimum wages would help achieve wage equality and minimize dependence on food assistance programs, Mamdouh said.

Most food servers are women (almost 70 percent), and 9 of 10 are subjected to some form of sexual harassment at their workplace, according to a nationwide ROC survey. Women food servers file sexual harassment charges at more than five times the rate of the general female workforce.

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Conference organizer Robin Clark-Bennett is a labor educator at the Center. She said the conference came together last fall as a way to address working conditions in the food industry.

In 2013, total sales for Johnson County eating and drinking establishments totaled $256 million. But nationally seven of the 10 lowest paid occupations are in food services according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The conference will bring together people from across the entire food chain, from harvesters and farmers, meat packers and food processing workers, to cooks and servers,” she said.

In addition to Mamdouh’s presentation, a panel of local food workers from Iowa will discuss the conditions they’ve faced in meatpacking, fast food and restaurant work.

“We want to highlight those injustices across the entire food chain but also highlight the really hopeful and exciting initiatives at every level that can transform the food industry to one that supports good jobs with dignity,” she said.

The event is Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Room 2520-D University Capitol Centre, on the second floor of Old Capitol Town Center in Iowa City. To register, or for further information, call the University of Iowa Labor Center at 335-4144.

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