Pia Grochowski: The other side of ethnic cuisine

by , under All categories, Pia Grochowski

By Pia Grochwoski

This month Six Degrees magazine ran multiple features on the theme of ethnic food and restaurants, “Dining with an Ethnic Twist: The popularity of ethnic restaurants in Finland continues to grow swiftly”. The proportion of ethnic restaurants in Finland continues to grow, making up 20% of the restaurant sector in Finland. It is worth noting many of these restaurants are also immigrant owned. Much of this is celebrated in that locals now have the chance to enjoy ethnic food closer to home: for vegetarians like myself it can become quite easy which restaurants to select when going out. Much of this is seen as supported as a representation of multiculturalism. What however is not talked about is the segmentation of the restaurant industry. Having worked a few years in the restaurant industry in Finland myself some key elements must be discussed before this is celebrated.

First of all, the restaurant industry is highly unregulated in terms of labour laws. Non-Finns working in these industries are often not appropriately informed of their rights, many of them can spend their entire days working in a restaurant that they don’t own. When I would meet colleagues after work some of them barely could orientate themselves in Helsinki as they never had the chance to leave their workplace. Others due to limited language ability are not capable of describing the abuse they face, or learn what is appropriate and decent working conditions. Immigrants can be easily exploited in the restaurant industry. They are also less likely to have the social ties or linguistic ability to direct a complaint. I do take care to watch for key elements of labour law abuse when visiting a restaurant, low prices, a single lonely worker running the whole place can be a telltale sign.

Secondly, there is an ethnic hierarchy in the industry. Immigrants make up a large portion of the restaurant sector, but similar too many other places in Finland face a glass ceiling. If you ever have the chance to go to a restaurant in central Helsinki, be it Italian, Finnish or other; much of the front end staff (wait staff, bartenders, host and hostesses) are Finnish or white. Finns working at ethnic restaurants (other than Finnish owned ethnic restaurants) are few and far between, this is a representation of differential pay increments. Ethnic restaurants often offer lower salaries. Back room staff (cooks, chefs, food-runners, dishwashers, cleaners) tends to be more diverse. I have rarely seen anything but an African-origin dishwasher. What surprises me about many I have spoken to is how well educated they are and their high language ability in Finnish and English. They could do much more than working as a dishwashing for less than 10€ and hour. The reason why they aren’t the elephant in the room we are all speaking of. There are few exceptions, however its apparent to me that many higher end restaurants seem to prefer a white face up front.

Which brings me to my final point. While there are some few changes being made up front: what is clear here, and what can’t be ignored is a clear barrier to immigrants in this sector-like many others. Many, if they want to advance in the sector would have to start their business: and hope it’s a success. This is facilitated by starttiraha, its one of the few avenues that is clearly open for immigrants to escape the dead end jobs in the restaurant business. The large portion of kebab shops for example aren’t are manifestation of Finnish demands for lean cuts of meat on bread: but rather a representation of a large portion of immigrants, particularly from the Middle East, unable to access decent employment by other means. Popularity and an interest in ethnic food make the starting up of ethnic restaurants more likely to be a success or lead to a sustainable livelihood.

Before celebrating the creation of ethnic restaurants, one should look at the social forces behind the fact that 3% of the population makes up 20% of a particular sector. One that is well documented to be one of the most exploitive.