It was May Day last year and Yale students were holed up in the libraries studying for finals. Distracted by the drama of essays and exams, few paid any notice to a stream of protesters weaving their way down Chapel Street.
That spring, accusations had begun to surface alleging worker abuse at Thai Taste. May Day protester Lupita Tecpa told the News that Thai Taste workers were suffering physical abuse at the hands of their employers. In recent weeks, these accusations have mounted. Members of Unidad Latina en Accion, a local immigrants’ rights organization, protested outside Thai Taste last Thursday. ULA activists claim that Roger Jaruch, who owns Thai Taste and Rice Pot on State Street, has stolen over $37,000 in wages from his workers.
Granted, the matter of wage theft at Thai Taste and Rice Pot warrants deeper investigation. The allegations made have not yet been substantiated, and it will likely take time and careful examination before concrete evidence emerges.
Nonetheless, last week’s protests are a critical reminder of the labor violations that contaminate our community. Our campus actively engaged in debate about workers’ rights when allegations arose against Gourmet Heaven. In recent months, though, those conversations fizzled. But wage theft isn’t an issue confined to that one instance — it’s a wide-reaching phenomenon, chronic and insidious.
Fortunately, history tells us that New Haven wage theft isn’t something we need to stomach.
When community activists alleged wage theft at Gourmet Heaven in 2013, Yale students joined ULA and other labor advocates in protesting the store. Students penned op-eds calling for a boycott. The store was investigated by the Connecticut Department of Labor and ultimately University Properties decided to terminate GHeav’s lease.
There are many matters of inequity and injustice in this city that feel removed from our daily lives — it’s hard to imagine our words and actions as students having any effect. But when it comes to labor violations, students actually have a strong tool at our disposal: the power of our wallets. As customers, we can leverage our business to demand fair treatment of workers. When we boycott, we convey — quite urgently — our disapproval of worker abuse. If there’s something to be learned from the GHeav saga, it’s this: Wage theft is an area where student activism can truly have an impact.
The alleged abuses at Thai Taste might demand a more complex solution than those at Gourmet Heaven. Thai Taste, unlike Gourmet Heaven, is not a tenant of University Properties. Yale thus has limited institutional power over the establishment. That places an even greater onus on us, as customers, to take a stand against worker abuse. We can press for investigation into Thai Taste’s ownership. If evidence emerges confirming the accusations of abuse, we can boycott.
The case of wage theft at Gourmet Heaven elicited months of media attention and public outcry — the store was, after all, one of the campus’s most popular establishments. But labor violations in New Haven extend beyond this incident. They demand our vigilance as students — and customers — in this community. We don’t have to compromise our consciences for a plate of pad thai.
Emma Goldberg is a senior in Saybrook College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at email@example.com .