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Art Show Reminds You Just How Badly Some Restaurant Workers Are Treated

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Los Angeles definitely has a huge restaurant culture, but sometimes while we're enjoying the delicious food, what goes unnoticed are the workers behind the scenes. That's where Cocina Abierta Collective—a group of artists, restaurant workers and educators—comes in. They're educating Angelenos about the dark side of the business, and how workers are getting cheated when it comes to wages, healthcare and even common workplace practices like taking breaks.

The group has had a residency over at the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) over the past month, collecting stories from local restaurant workers and opening up discussions on the ethical treatment of employees in the food industry in our city. And the collective is closing their project with the exhibit, "Cocina Abierta: Help Wanted," at LACE's Hollywood storefront that runs from today through August 13.

The Cocina Abierta Collective uses cooking as a vehicle to talk to people about immigrant histories and workers rights in the food industry. They even offer restaurant employees a test kitchen outside of work to try out new recipes, or hold public cooking demonstrations. As part of their residency, they visited the Hollywood Farmers Market on July 20 and passed out cookies where they stamped messages like "What is a living wage?" and "Living off tips." They would get people to take a cookie and eat it, and then open up a discussion on what one of the group's organizers and artist Christina Sanchez Juarez calls "ethical dining."

"Los Angeles is the number one city in wage theft," Juarez tells LAist.

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UCLA released a study in 2010 that found that L.A. was the leading city (beating out New York and Chicago) in wage theft, according to the L.A. Times. Nearly every one of three low-wage workers surveyed said that they were paid less than minimum wage and almost 80 percent of them were stiffed for overtime wages that employers are legally bound to pay. Others complained that they had to clock out and continue working, had to work through breaks, were coerced into working while they were sick, and were discouraged from unionizing. Almost one in five restaurant workers in L.A. (and other industries that receive tips) said that employers illegally kept all or some of their tips.

"Obviously, the fact that so many of these workers are in the country illegally does provide unscrupulous employers the opportunity to take advantage," Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, told the Times.

In June, Councilmen Paul Koretz and Gil Cedillo started pushing for a new wage theft ordinance that would crack down on businesses that violated minimum wage and overtime laws.

Juarez hopes that educating people about the status quo may help them reflect on how they can change their consumer choices, such as supporting restaurants that practice ethical dining, or telling a manager that a bus boy is doing a good job.

They have a partnership with the advocacy group, Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles (ROC-LA), which serves as the activist arm of their group. They fight for paid sick days, healthcare and higher wages for restaurant workers.

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Juarez says that they applied for the funding of their residency at LACE through the city's Department of Cultural Affairs. "What we proposed was to investigate Hollywood through perspective of the restaurant worker," she says.

Armed with clipboards and questionnaires, they went to the streets of Hollywood to survey restaurant workers and ask questions about the wages in the area, how many are working two jobs or more to survive in this city, and how far does it take them to commute there.

At their exhibition at LACE people will get to look at all the testimonials that the collective filtered down on a large map of Hollywood on the wall. Also, they'll be playing audio snippets of these interviews on the street outside of the exhibit. Juarez says this exhibit is a "reflective space."

LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) is located at 6522 Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood, (323) 957-1777. The opening reception is tonight July 31 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. and the exhibit runs through August 13.