Saru Jayaraman
Ashoka Fellow since 2013   |   United States

Saru Jayaraman

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United
The second largest employer in the United States, the restaurant industry, is home to seven of the ten lowest-paying occupations. Saru Jayaraman is leading a nationwide effort to transform this…
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This description of Saru Jayaraman's work was prepared when Saru Jayaraman was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.


The second largest employer in the United States, the restaurant industry, is home to seven of the ten lowest-paying occupations. Saru Jayaraman is leading a nationwide effort to transform this industry’s subpar employment practices by aligning worker, employer, and consumer interests.

The New Idea

Saru is leading a national movement to improve the working conditions and upward mobility of people working all along the food chain—most of whom have the lowest paying jobs in the country and no benefits.

This dead-end pattern has come to seem inevitable. The employers’ association resists anything that would increase costs. The few labor groups and training programs are minute and fractured.

Saru is creating a new alignment of forces that, amazingly, promises serious change.

She succeeded in early litigations but realized that that could only move a handful of sand on a broad beach.

She brought in consumers as key allies—a game-changing new force. She appeals both to their sense of fairness and their self-interest. For example, it is not great for consumers that having no provisions for sick leave means that unhealthy workers are handling their food. She has built a mass consumer organization, Engaged Eater’s Table, to drive this work.

At least as important, she is bringing in growing numbers of owners as allies. She does top quality university-based analyses that show that the High Road she advocates pays. She convenes them in city Roundtables. She helps them with sensitivity training and other supports.

To the degree that Saru’s realignment can work for restaurants, it invites emulation in other sectors.

The Problem

With over 10 million workers, the restaurant industry is one of the largest and fastest-growing segments of the US economy, prospering even during bad economic times. Although there are some livable wage jobs in this industry, namely wait staff and bartending positions in fine dining restaurants, the vast majority of workers suffer below-poverty wages and poor working conditions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the restaurant industry is both one of the two largest employers in the US and the employer with the two lowest-paying jobs in America. In addition, benefits such as paid sick days and health coverage are an anomaly—a fact that hurts workers and leaves many who are not well handling food, which is a risk factor for consumers. Immigrants, women, and workers of color in particular struggle to advance to livable wage jobs, and are concentrated in the industry’s lowest-paid positions. White people have twice the chance of a person of color of obtaining a living wage job at fine dining restaurants, while people of color hold 80 percent of poverty-wage jobs, usually hidden behind the kitchen door.

The industry’s low wages can be attributed in part to the fact that the minimum wage for tipped workers has remained stagnant at $2.13 per hour for the last 21 years, dragging the rest of the industry down with it. (The federally mandated minimum wage is set at $7.25 per hour for most other industries.) Wage theft and other worker rights violations are also common occurrences with few avenues for redress.

The National Restaurant Association—the industry lobby representing restaurant employers—has successfully influenced policymakers to exempt their industry from more stringent hiring standards, largely by arguing that it is not economically viable to raise wages or improve benefits. In part, those arguments still stand, because until recently they had not been proven wrong. There had been no concerted effort to recognize or incentivize employers taking the high road to profitability. By demonstrating that it is possible to run a successful business while upholding better hiring standards, Saru and her team are working with like-minded employers to prove that theirs are not pie-in-the-sky objectives.

The Strategy

Saru co-founded ROC-United to engage workers, employers, and consumers in a movement to transform the restaurant industry by helping it adopt 21st century working standards. Over the last decade, ROC has grown into a national restaurant workers’ organization with 10,000 members in nineteen cities nationwide.

ROC began its work by launching strategic litigation campaigns against high profile, exploitative employers as a way to shift industry norms. ROC takes on a client when they believe that shifting their employer’s practices will exert an influence on other restaurants. For example, Saru’s team supported workers alleging lost minimum wage, overtime, spread-of-hours pay, and tip misappropriation, as well as charges of race and national origin discrimination and retaliation. The 31 employees worked at a restaurant owned by a celebrity chef, who eventually agreed to a $1.5 million settlement and expanded the restaurant’s paid sick days and paid vacation policies, enacted a promotions policy, and began cultural sensitivity training for management. Most importantly, the chef has agreed to collaborate with ROC-NY to become a High Road Employer in the industry. Given his influence on other restaurant owners, this is a significant victory. ROC has won thirteen such campaigns against discrimination and exploitation in high profile restaurants, obtaining $7 million in stolen tips and wages and significant policy changes for workers.

Though litigation is one instrument ROC uses to persuade employers to improve their practices, Saru quickly realized that a purely confrontational approach would unlikely lead to national scale impact. Key to Saru’s success, and a significant differentiator with “worker rights” organizations, including unions, has been her propensity to work in collaboration with every actor in the food industry. Given that restaurant owners are motivated in large part by the bottom line, ROC understood that it needed to also answer employers’ economic concerns to incentivize them to change their practices. Saru and her team are pursuing a three-pronged strategy to achieve this goal.

ROC is the first to have ever undertaken peer-reviewed, empirical research to detail the current state of the restaurant industry and the economic benefits of taking the high road to profitability. Saru established the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley and is allying herself to several universities across the country to ensure that the claims that ROC has been making can be backed by strong, academic research. For example, a growing body of research is beginning to prove that earned sick days policies can easily pay for themselves in decreased turnover costs and increased worker productivity. This is the sort of market research that not only can help incentivize restaurant owners to change their individual policies, but it is also highly needed to counter the claims of the National Restaurant Association, the industry’s lobby in the public policy battle that ROC is undertaking at the federal level.

Though research is needed, like litigation it is not enough to move employers from awareness to action. This is why Saru and her team have focused on demonstrating that the sorts of changes they are advocating for are far from unreasonable. In fact, many employers are already taking the high road, and others would be more than happy to do so given a little guidance. ROC-United has begun working with roughly 70 restaurant owners across the country who have shown that improved working conditions helps, not hurts profitability. ROC has even opened two worker owned cooperative restaurants (COLORS) to prove that point, get a first-hand understanding of restaurant owner’s challenges and test out some of their own hypotheses. For example, when—through the Food Labor Research Center—ROC discovered the extent of racial discrimination in the industry, they developed a national restaurant worker’s workforce development program housed within COLORS to improve upward mobility for women, immigrants, and people of color. It also began including cultural sensitivity training for management at restaurants that choose to take the High Road. The goal is to create formalized career ladders in an industry that has traditionally hired based on appearance and informal contacts. Restaurant employers are invited to join ROC’s local Restaurant Industry Roundtables: regular convenings of employers where information and technical assistance are provided on High Road practices. The Restaurant Industry Roundtable in each of the ROC affiliate cities provides a space for sharing and mutual support to help more employers adopt best employer practices. These employers also speak at local, state, and federal legislative hearings advocating for worker-friendly policies and assist ROC-United to improve the working conditions for restaurant workers.

A couple of years ago, Saru began thinking about how she might incentivize many more employers to join these Roundtables and ultimately become a powerful enough counterpoint to the National Restaurant Association to influence the national policy agenda. The answer? Consumers. Saru is allying herself with the sustainable food movement focused on healthy, organic, locally sourced foods. She carefully studied the exponential growth of this movement and realized that much of it was due to the publication of two highly influential, mainstream books. Saru has written, Behind the Kitchen Door, to inform the public about the situation of restaurant workers and Danny Glover bought the rights to transform it into a full-length feature film and documentaries. Awareness is but the first step in Saru’s consumer engagement strategy. She is also leveraging the influence of the leading ‘ethical food’ organizations in the country, including Slow Food USA, by getting them to include workers within their ethical eating paradigm.

Once consumers become more aware of food worker’s rights issues in the US, the goal is to mobilize them through a new mass consumer organization Saru is establishing: the Engaged Eater’s Table (EET). As part of EET, Saru and her team have developed a Diner’s Guide, which reads like a Zagat or Yelp, to help consumers find out about the employment practices of the 150 most popular restaurant companies in the US, as well as the same practices of High Road restaurant partners of ROC. The guide is now available for free download as a smartphone application and is helping diners decide where to eat and communicate their values when they eat, both to restaurant management and ultimately to their members of Congress. Engaged Eater’s Table members will also get discounts to restaurants taking the High Road—thus incentivizing them to vote with their wallets. Saru is in the beginning phase of building a community of informed foodies that will form a “groundswell” that can reverberate back to Congress.

The Person

Saru is the child of immigrants from India who grew up with a strong interest in the human condition worldwide. She grew up in a Chicano neighborhood east of Los Angeles, and witnessed the injustices faced by her own immigrant parents and the working-class families of her classmates. By the time Saru got to high school, it had become obvious to her that she would focus on helping to eradicate such injustices.

In college, Saru founded Women and Youth Supporting Each Other, a national organization that sought to reduce teenage pregnancy through mentorship between female college students and middle school girls in communities around the country. She founded it at her college and then spent much of law and graduate school replicating the program at universities nationally. The organization still exists and has grown to more than a dozen college campuses.

After law school, Saru founded La Alianza para la Justicia (Alliance for Justice) at the Workplace Project, an immigrant workers organizing center in Long Island, New York. She created a new program using litigation and organizing to help factory, restaurant, and cleaning workers address exploitation in the workplace. Saru’s initiative attracted attention nationwide: instead of simply providing a needed service, she creatively engaged every constituent she met to help them both understand their situation and take collective action.

While at the Workplace Project, just after 9/11, Saru received a phone call from the union that represented workers at Windows on the World (WoW), the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. The WoW workers who had survived the attacks were out of work and therefore could not be represented by the union anymore. Initially, the union asked Saru and her co-founder Fekkak Mamdouh, a former worker at Windows on the World to create an organization that would help survivors get back on their feet. When the owner of WoW announced that he would reopen a restaurant in another location but would not hire back its former staff, Saru and her small team took legal action against WoW’s owner and won. Many more restaurant workers in New York City learned of this victory and started approaching ROC for help with similar labor issues.

Saru realized at that point that the problem was much larger than she had initially understood. In fact, it was a problem of such large proportions that litigation alone would never even begin to improve the working conditions of restaurant workers. Saru understood that industry transformation at a national level would necessitate a much more nuanced strategy, ROC-United.

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