#LivingOffTips: Reframing Food System Labor Through Tipped Workers' Narratives of Subminimum Wage Exploitation


  • Kathleen P. Hunt Iowa State University




Restaurant Labor, Subminimum Wage, Food Justice, Framing, Narratives


Agrifood movement literature largely represents food system labor through images, descriptions, and depictions of farm workers and other agriculture-related labor, such as slaughtering and meatpacking. Although engaging in a holistic dialogue that considers the continuum of labor abuse across the food system may be a difficult task, privileging production-oriented food system labor reinforces what Guthman (2014) calls an "agrarian imaginary." Such narrow representations can marginalize the food system workers whom modern consumers are most likely to encounter: restaurant staff that prepare and serve food. Tipped workers' subminimum wage is subsidized by the good graces customers; staff have little access to health benefits or sick days; female restaurant staff are subject to sexual harassment, abuse, and even assault. Through the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), tipped workers are engaging in active resistance through advocacy and online/social media campaigns. Stories of tipped worker exploitation submitted to the ROC #LivingOffTips online forum are examined through qualitative analysis. Tipped workers' narratives frame the risks of tipped labor exploitation, define tips as an issue of wage inequality, and characterize the essential role played by wait staff, thereby encouraging a reconsideration of food system labor by the alternative food movement. By narrativizing their experience of the subminimum wage, tipped workers not only make restaurant labor abuse more visible, they strategically frame their work as legitimate food system labor.

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Author Biography

Kathleen P. Hunt, Iowa State University

Assistant Professor of Agricultural Communication, Department of Agricultural Education & Studies, Iowa State University; 206D Curtiss Hall; Ames, Iowa 50011 USA.



How to Cite

Hunt, K. P. (2016). #LivingOffTips: Reframing Food System Labor Through Tipped Workers’ Narratives of Subminimum Wage Exploitation. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 6(2), 165–177. https://doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2016.062.021



Labor in the Food System Call Papers