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Social Responsibility Not Just Being Green

Trafulgar Square, London. Photo by Orhan Tsolak
Trafulgar Square, London. Photo by Orhan Tsolak

Green is good. From greens garnishing a plate, to the color green in fashion, and of course to the new “green” craze that’s been sweeping our country. It is a great idea with awesome marketing power behind it, and it makes a lot of sense – the economy is in tatters so conservation of dollars is a focus… and our Earth does not have endless resources. So to be part of the movement (and possibly save the Earth and a few bucks in the process), we all quench our thirst from BPA-free water bottles and toss our grocery purchases into trendy reusable canvas bags garnished with artwork.

But where my allegiance to the green movement hesitates – and where attention should be paid – is the word “Green” being thrown around the industry. To be fair, I should mention here that I work for a worker’s rights center i that works with restaurant workers, and among other things, organizes campaigns against high-end restaurants in Manhattan that have workplace violations.

As consumers, there is a trend to enjoy being socially conscious – thus the onslaught of the wildly successful reusable bags and water bottles. In order for a restaurant that you might feast at to be considered “green” by the Green Restaurants Association ii, certain requirements have to be met regarding specific rules on a myriad of things, from water use, to energy consumption, to even the use of sustainable foods on the menu. If points are accumulated in the rightful categories, a restaurant can receive Green certification. Aside from certification from an association, the National Restaurant Association has its own environmental initiative1 regarding how restaurants can conserve and engage in green practices 2, from to-do lists to webinars. They even feature local restaurants of all kinds who have incorporated innovative and environmental friendly practices.

But nowhere in these “green” policies is the treatment of restaurant workers discussed. While restaurant workers are exploited on many levels, a huge amount of workplace problems are faced by women in the industry. One woman I met, Samantha 3 who was an experienced waitress at a premier Manhattan restaurant, was faced with countless incidents of sexual harassment in her workplace. The manager would always inquire about her personal life, taunting her with invasive questions about her sex life. At a staff meeting, when demonstrating how to place a napkin in a guest’s lap, he openly and offensively joked about a woman’s anatomy, making both male and female workers uncomfortable.

At another well-known chain which has upscale restaurants around the country, I met with a woman, who while pregnant, was still expected to conduct intense manual labor, even when her pregnancy was at risk. Her requests to go see a doctor were battles with the management. Luckily, in spite of a hospital stay, she and her baby ended up being healthy. These two stories are just a few examples. Ask any girl friend who has worked in the restaurant industry whether she, or a co-worker suffered any sort of workplace problems while on the floor or in the kitchen. Because of the informal culture of many restaurants, there is no set human resource structure, so there is no place to file any sort of complaint – and bad behavior can multiply.

While improving in appearance and in efficiency, both in terms of attracting customers and saving money, many restaurants are still maintaining an oppressive culture towards their female employees. Some recent research my organization is working on touches on the culture of machismo in restaurants – most of the positions, especially those that are higher paid, have been found to be held by men. So if the industry can change and adapt to current needs of the environment, why can it not change its treatment of women workers?

Treatment of women in the workplace touches on a myriad of issues. Of course, there are the blatant violations of the law – the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission deals with sexual harassment complaints 4, and provisions such as the Federal Medical Leave Act 5 mandate that employers give employees (unpaid) leave in order to care for a child or themselves. On a larger scale, there is the human rights issue women face when suffering this type of indignity in the workplace, which many cities in America have codified based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 6.

Nothing about a restaurant having Green practices is mandated by law, but the non-objectifying treatment of women is mandated by laws on local, federal and international levels. The Green movement, admirable as it is, should also factor in the biggest element of being economically and socially conscious – the treatment of people, specifically in this case, of women. Common humanity extended at the workplace, between workers across race and gender lines. Only when the existing laws stating this are properly enforced, and it is treated as an unshakable tenet of sustainability will true eco-friendly dining exist.

– Sheebani Patel



3 Name changed






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