The management of Diva Indian Bistro, in Davis Square, Somerville, has been faced with a problem lately: how to keep customers coming in the door on Friday nights, when the restaurant is now regularly picketed by a lively mix of local residents, community organizers, and former employees who accuse Diva’s parent company, One World Cuisine, of massive wage theft. Besides lowering the window-shades to keep the sight of protesters from spoiling the dining experience, Diva Management is using several classic methods to encourage patrons to ignore the workers’ demands and cross the picket line: bribery, mockery, disinformation, and playing on racial-ethnic divides.
All four methods are expressed in the small sheet of paper that Diva is slipping to customers, along with a complimentary appetizer.
The paper reads: “Dear Guest of Diva: We apologize for the disturbance outside. Centro Presente, an Hispanic advocacy group, is protesting the wages we pay our Hispanic employees. Although they are well-meaning, they are mistaken. We are an equal opportunity employer and pay all of our workers fairly and in compliance with the law. Please accept this complimentary centro presente plate in appreciation for your dining with us tonight. Sincerely, The Management”. Organizers became aware of the above statement thanks to a sympathizing Diva patron who approached them after her dinner. “I came in before you started picketing,” she exclaimed after hearing the picketers’ story, “That’s awful what they’re doing. We won’t be back.” She then added, “This is what they’re giving to people inside,” and handed picketers the small slip of paper.
“The management of Diva is trying to do damage control with this note,” stated Patrick McDermott, organizer with Centro Presente. McDermott described the way the company is misleading its customers. “We are not protesting the wages they pay their Hispanic employees. Rather, we are working with a specific group of ex-employees who have filed complaints in federal court against One World Cuisine restaurants, including Diva, for not paying them minimum wage or overtime. The total amount of the complaints is $183,500.”
He added “the management of Diva tries to come across as very nice in this note… However, their actions with the workers are far more unpleasant. Some of the workers state in the court complaints that since the protesting began the company approached and pressured them to sign forms with information about their hours and wages that they knew was inaccurate. “
As McDermott clarified, “None of these figures include punitive damages,” which could be as much as threefold under Massachusetts Labor Law. “They are estimates of how much is owed in unpaid overtime and minimum wage based on the workers estimates of their hours.”
According to Centro Presente’s research, based on worker testimonies, Diva owes one worker $20,500. Mumbai Chopstix, another One World Cuisine company, owes four workers a combined total of $51,000. Café of India owes one worker $60,000, while Bukhara owes a single former employee $52,000. A typical wage paid to these restaurant workers was $400 a week for 72 hours of work, translating to $5.55 an hour. Some workers labored for as long as a year and a half under these conditions, as prep cooks as well as dishwashers.
Furthermore, McDermott added, “The note tries to minimize the workers demands as being about identity politics.”
One World Cuisine is the management company that operates all of these restaurants, and is named on all four lawsuits. While each restaurant is listed as a different legal corporate entity, all are owned by the wealthy Pabla Singh family, with various family members listed as heads of each company.
With the aid of Centro Presente’s Workers Center and Boston Legal Services, the workers are suing One World Cuisine in Boston Federal Court. But in light of the long delays such labor cases face—delays that reflect the severely underfunded nature of the US Labor Department and the class biased nature of the US legal system—the workers and their allies are not waiting for a judge for justice. The weekly Friday Diva picket thus works to build pressure on the company, by educating the community about the situation, and by deterring potential diners from Diva’s door.
Some Fridays, the picketers occupy the sidewalk outside of Diva restaurant by the dozens: marching, holding signs, and chanting in solidarity with the victims of wage theft.
Helping to lead chants from the sidewalk, Jacob Jensen stated, “Our voices are so loud that it drives their customers away, hopefully, for all the right reasons. I mean, I wouldn’t want to eat at a place stealing from their employees, would you?”
Protester Dean Samuels added, “The legal minimum wage is far too low as it is. The idea that they were paying these people less than $6/hour is outrageous. As if the legal exploitation of workers at minimum wage wasn’t bad enough.”
The action also serves as an implicit warning to other restaurant owners about what may happen if they stoop to paying workers less than minimum wage, and signals community support to other workers being illegally exploited in the area.
Picket regular Boyd Nielson emphasized how “Diva’s/One World Cuisine’s efforts to suppress wages are symptomatic of this economy. It’s not just Diva. Wal Mart and others have done similar things. I’m here in opposition to this practice not just here but everywhere.”
Samuels pointed out that such wage theft is a common practice in contemporary capitalism, where a combination of vulnerable workers and stiff competition makes such criminal-exploitation an attractive option for profit-hungry employers.
It remains to be seen whether declining Friday night sales will get Diva and One World Cuisine ownership to reconsider its business model. Will enough patrons refuse the free appetizer of exploitation, opting instead for the sustenance of solidarity? Though many in the area are long-time lovers of Diva’s dishes, most who hear the workers story seem to lose their appetite.