The Complicated, Sometimes Heartbreaking Reality Happening in a Restaurant Kitchen Near You

Experiencing a taste of another culture isn’t quite as simple as trying the food.

(Photo: Paul J. Richards/Getty Images)

Aug 11, 2014· 5 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

The most important word I learned when I first moved to Slovenia was dhonnobad, which means “thank you” in Bengali. There isn’t a large Bangladeshi population in Ljubljana, but the three guys who worked ceaselessly in my favorite sandwich shop were my first expat friends. They wrapped the perfect chicken curry in fluffy, hot naan and knowingly doused it in honey, winning me over during one of my first days wandering around the small central European capital. Jet-lagged and unsure what had compelled me to leave everything I knew for this unfamiliar place, naan wraps were suddenly a suitable answer.

While the food was reason enough to become a regular at the tiny restaurant on cobblestone-lined Trubarjeva Street, the connection I made with my friends behind the counter kept me coming back. On my second visit, I bonded in English with Mizan,* one of the shop’s employees, over how difficult we found it to learn Slovene—a language riddled with more consonants than the most nightmarish hand in Scrabble—and what it was like to be so far from our families. We both had older sisters and made a habit of asking each other how they were when I stopped by for lunch.

Of course, a comparison between our lives is crude: I was in Slovenia by choice, living off a research grant for a nine-month stint; they were staying for an indeterminate amount of time, laboring for long hours with little pay. While I had to support only myself on my grant money, Mizan was barely making enough for his own expenses, let alone the money he planned to send back to his family.

With only a small partition separating us in the shoebox-size restaurant, connecting with Mizan and his coworkers was easy. But learning what’s going on behind the counter can give you more than a chance to foster a cultural connection—it may also complicate your favorite lunch spot.

That the three men were always in the shop was enough to suggest a less-than-ideal work situation, but it was a conversation I had with Mizan that revealed the full picture. With their visa status and housing tied to their overbearing employer, Mizan explained that he and his colleagues had little choice but to work incessantly, often without breaks or days off, for less than the wage they were promised. “It’s very, very bad,” he told me one night over tea. “I am so tired. I want to leave, but I don’t know where to go.”

When I go out to eat, the food on my plate usually takes center stage. I taste and praise or criticize, sharing recommendations with friends or casting them aside in the quest for a better dish. Other times, the meal is utilitarian, inhaled before rushing to my next destination. In the background of both scenarios, people like Mizan are hard at work, often laboring under conditions the average diner can’t imagine.

When I shared his story with Lilana Keith, a program officer at the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants, a Belgium-based NGO that works on immigration issues, she was anything but surprised. According to Keith, this narrative repeats itself throughout Europe—for documented and undocumented migrant workers alike.

“The fact that work permits are for the most part tied to a particular employer means that if there’s any problem in the relationship between that employer and employee, the employee loses their status,” said Keith. “This power imbalance means that they have very little bargaining power to defend their rights as workers.”

As TakePart has noted, this exploitative relationship is not confined to Europe. In the U.S., immigrant workers are among the most vulnerable and exploited laborers because of visa-related requirements. This situation, in both the U.S. and abroad, is especially common in the restaurant, catering, and agriculture industries.

“This is where people seem to be most hidden from public scrutiny, where they are most vulnerable and dependent on their employers,” said Franck Düvell, an associate professor at the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society.

Mizan was lured to Slovenia by the promise of a fair wage in the restaurant industry—far higher than anything he could find in Bangladesh—and a better life. On the ground in his new city, the story was startlingly different. For experts on migrant labor, the territory is all too familiar.

PICUM’s Keith recounted the eerily similar story of a Pakistani immigrant in Ireland named Mohammed Younis, whose awful experience made him a poster child of sorts for the fight for the human rights of migrant workers. Recruited as a chef in a tandoori restaurant in Clondalkin, a town just west of Dublin, Younis worked 80 hours a week for seven years in harsh conditions. His starting wage was 51 cents an hour.

His employer maintained a verbally abusive and fearful environment, taking his passport and monitoring his every move. To further control him, Younis’ employer refused to renew his work permit when it expired, making it impossible for him to seek “legal” employment anywhere else.

Thankfully, Younis’ case was brought to the attention of the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland, and he escaped. But stories like his are common, as I learned firsthand in Slovenia. Düvell likens situations like this to “an almost legal version of human trafficking, leading to situations similar to slavery.” While it may seem outrageous that such stories repeat themselves throughout the world, Düvell offers a simple explanation.

“There is an economic reality determined by demand and supply which drives this element of the labor market and the irregular migrant economy,” he said. “There is a tension between what the economy wants and demands and what politics has decided to do on the other hand. And very often, migrant workers just sort of become victims of this asymmetry and tension.”

In spite of the hard work of organizations like PICUM, these kinds of policy changes have barely advanced. In the course of our conversation, Keith recommended a policy brief called “Ten Ways to Protect Undocumented Migrant Workers,” which the organization published almost 10 years ago. The recommendations are just as relevant today.

“We’re still seeing that the fact that a worker doesn’t have status means their labor rights aren’t being recognized, even though according to international labor standards, all labor rights should apply regardless of the status of the worker or their status of employment,” she said. “This is still the fundamental issue which is not being addressed.”

In spite of the legal disparity and policy gap, Keith said she believes migrant workers are often active members of their diaspora and in many cases are even able to organize community members in solidarity with their cause. “By denying these rights to any one group of people, it has a massive impact on them, but it also fosters exploitation, informal working conditions, and degrades the labor market overall,” she explained.

In London, for example, undocumented Filipino women who were domestic workers organized a self-help group called Waling Waling, identifying their needs and then turning to a larger NGO, Kalayaan, for assistance with their cause. The group was able to join forces with other workers and advocacy groups and effectively lobby Parliament to create a pathway to legal documentation. In Belgium, the Organization for Undocumented Workers joined forces with domestic migrant workers to publish a cookbook called Our Rights, Our Recipes. The extraordinary project combines not only the recipes the workers use for their employers and their own families, but also shares their stories about the challenges of working without documents in a country far from their homes.

In the few instances that Mizan admitted the severity of his situation to me, he always quickly recanted, mustered a smile, and changed the subject. He glanced up at the moon on one such occasion and told me he liked to look and remember it was the same one his sister saw in Bangladesh and that I would see when I went back to New York. In light of this survival tactic, the isolation I felt in my new home seemed small and needless.

On my last night in Ljubljana, the rain poured as I ran down Trubarjeva to say goodbye to my friends. I ducked into the restaurant, grateful for cover as they laughed at my drenched state. The better I came to understand their situation, the less I wanted to pay for the delicious food that I knew barely supported them. Instead, that night we shared watermelon from the nearby market. Cut into chunks and salted at Mizan’s insistence, its syrupy juice seeped onto the Styrofoam plate we all ate from.

* Names of the workers in Slovenia have been changed.

TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, is involved in the production and marketing of The Hundred-Foot Journey.