Saru Jayaraman, 38, was born in Rochester, New York to immigrant parents from South India. Her family moved to San Diego when she was three and later to Los Angeles where she grew up in a largely Hispanic neighborhood, having most of her friends with immigrant parents, working as gardeners, janitors, and restaurant workers. This allowed her to see up close how people with low-paying jobs, especially people of color were treated and she definitely didn’t like what she saw. This led her to become the activist she is now, founder of the non-profit Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROCU), she is committed to improving the wage and working conditions of restaurant workers. She has also written a book in this regard titled Behind the Kitchen Door, published in February 2013, which contains her research throughout the years and interviews with hundreds of restaurant workers and which has also gained national attention.
Saru always had the passion to help the marginalized. Even as a student at University of California Los Angles, she cofounded a nonprofit called Women and Youth Supporting Each Other (WYSE) which helped young women find support, discuss relevant issues and make more responsible decisions. The program not only earned recognition, but Saru also ended up being termed as “one of America’s finest young people” by the then President Bill Clinton. After getting a Law degree from Yale, she started La Alianza Para La Justicia (Alliance for Justice) at the nonprofit Workplace Project in Hempstead, New York. The goal for Alliance for Justice was helping factory, restaurant, and cleaning workers legally fight exploitation in the workplace.
The protest that she helped set up for the surviving and unemployed workers of the Windows on the World restaurant on top of the World Trade Center who were not being employed in the restaurant’s new location in Times Square was very successful leading many other restaurant workers in the area to approach Saru for help. So she started Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York which later went national being called Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROCU). The ROCU took on many challenges, a few of which were the racial and gender discrimination, rampant abuse, and abysmal working conditions and the concept of a “slave wage” in the restaurant industry. “I know of full-time restaurant workers sleeping under a bridge because they don’t earn enough to pay rent,” says Saru. “Their entire salary goes to taxes, and they have nothing to take home at the end of the month, outside of the tips they make. Asking someone to earn their living off the tips paid by customers is extremely dehumanizing and makes them vulnerable to harassment.”
Her work seemed to have angered the The National Restaurants Association (NRA) and the attacks from them do sometimes worry her especially when it comes to her family, but her intentions to help never die down. Aptly repeating Gandhi’s quote “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.”