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Fighting for Restaurant Workers' Rights

Food Solutions New England hosted the 6th in a series of Regional Food Summits in Bridgeport, CT on June 8–9, 2016. This two-day event featured more than 180 delegates from the six New England states working across the food system. Planners, farmers and farm workers, chefs, funders, government officials, and students came together for discussions on topics including food recovery, policy, healthy, food chain workers, and more. 

Food Solutions New England (FSNE) heard from Lin Geng, a member of the Food Chain Workers Delegation to the 2016 Summit.

My name is Lin Geng (or Geng Lin in American way) and I come from China. I am a restaurant worker. I have worked in restaurant industry for over 14 years. I have worked as a kitchen helper, line cook, cashier, and sushi chef in about 10 different restaurants and 6 different states. I love making tasty and creative food and I love sharing and getting to know my coworkers as well as customers. I am also an organizer of the Pioneer Valley Workers Center.

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Q: Why do you do what you do?

A: I started my first restaurant job when I was 19. I didn’t know anything about restaurants and I didn’t know how to cook. The reason I choose this type of job is because there are not many choices and most people who came from my place are working in the restaurant. 

Q: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system? 

A: The most pressing issue I’d like to see solved is the wage theft.

Q: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference? 

A: Supporting the restaurants where their workers are treated equally.

Q: What are your most urgent concerns or upcoming action opportunities?

A: My most urgent concern is job security. Many restaurant workers worry about losing their jobs if they speak up.

Q: How can the Food Solutions New England network help you overcome or address those concerns or help you with the action?

A: The Food Solutions New England network can help restaurant workers to bring these issues to a broader audience and gain more support from the public.

Q: What was your experience at the 2016 New England Food Summit as part of the Food Chain Workers Delegation?

A: I was impressed by FSNE’s 50 by 60 goal. I think it is a great idea of building a sustainable food system by creating community gardens and purchasing local food. However, I believe that a sustainable labor practice in the food system is critical. How can we call the food system sustainable if the farm and restaurant workers couldn’t even make minimum wages? How can we expect the workers to purchase local and organic food if they are struggling to pay the rent? I feel the Food Chain Workers’ issues and voices didn’t get much attention at the Summit. 

Q: How does your work connect with A New England Food Vision?​

A: My work of fighting wage theft and other issues is the work of fighting for workers’ dignity and it is related to the New England Food Vision.

On May 23rd 2016, Lin Geng and sixteen other workers at the Zen Restaurant in Northampton were told at 10:00 PM (the close of the restaurant) that the restaurant had been sold and would was going to be closed permanently so they would not have a job that next day. This restaurant was the workers’ livelihoods. Many of the workers lived in housing provided by the owners and they were told that they had 3 days to get out of their home.  The Pioneer Valley Workers Center believes the actions taken by the Sun Family, the owners of Zen Restaurant, shows a lack of respect and dignity for these workers. That next morning the workers met with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center to find out what their rights were and how they could organize. They created a list of demands. Stand in solidarity with the workers’ demands:

  1. Severance Pay
  2. We should be able to stay in our home (housing provided by the Sun Family, owners of Zen Restaurant)
  3. Guaranteed job at the new restaurant (they sold the restaurant to Oriental Flavor, of Amherst)
  4. Recuperate Stolen Wages
  5. Receive Last Paychecks


"Not all restaurant owners follow the laws and it is a problem. I want to go out to a restaurant where its workers can be treated well. A restaurant where each worker makes at least minimum wage.  A restaurant where workers can pay their rent. A restaurant where a worker can go to the hospital and not worry about paying the bill when they get cut or burned. A restaurant where each worker can not only put the food on the table for the costumers but on their own tables. It is my dream that all the restaurant workers can make at least minimum wage.  That all the restaurant workers can get benefits. These are our rights we work hard and we deserve them. However without your support my dream will not come true." - Lin Geng

In this video Lin Geng shares his story and dreams:

For more, check out We Are Not Machines/No Somos Máquinas/我们不是机器: Voices of Northampton Restaurant Workers

July 10–16
A.P.E. Gallery / 126 Main St, Northampton

If you have questions or want to learn how to get involved with the Pioneer Valley Workers Center email or call 413-570- 3060.