The Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition (CRWC) is calling on politicians “to create a more just, equitable and sustainable employment for the workers of this sector through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.”
A job in a restaurant is a right of passage, some would say. It’s a gruelling, often thankless grind. Restaurant work can inspire great passion just as easily as it can ruin your life.
The quotidian aspect of a job in a restaurant has contributed to the sense that hospitality work isn’t legitimate. It’s what you do to earn money while waiting to kick off your real career. Unless, of course, you work in the world of fine-dining, in which case you’re no longer simply a worker — no, now you’re a student of a craft, one to which industry lore and food media demand unwavering, singular dedication.
Don’t get me wrong, dedication to craft is all well and good, but at what cost does it come? Much has been said over the course of the last year about the state of the restaurant industry, from sexual misconduct to the pervasiveness of addiction to the violence both physical and emotional wielded by ego-centric chefs and restaurant owners, not to mention the unpacking of white supremacy in food. These are the costs or at least some of the symptoms of an industry partly built on a “pirate ship” mentality that rewards bravado and ego above all else.
This is a time of reckoning for our industry, and in the grimmest of days, the industry is presented with a rare opportunity for change. We have begun to address the major failings, the ones that make for scandalous headlines, but rarely have we focused our attention on the state of basic rights and working conditions for the average restaurant employee.
Two factors at the core of this problem are the highly manipulative notion of the “work family” and the poisonous identity of the martyr-cook. These ideologies are deeply rooted in the restaurant biz, concepts that rely on self-sacrifice in exchange for community and identity. Because of this, a majority of restaurant workers are left completely oblivious or willfully ignorant to their basic rights as employees.
As a restaurant worker, I know firsthand what this looks like. Fortunately for me, the grievances I have are few and far between — I’ve been lucky enough to mostly work for businesses contributing to positive changes. Many of my peers, however, have not been so lucky.
In recent years, like an onion rotting from the inside out, layer upon layer of the restaurant industry has been pulled back, bringing to light the nastier side of our favourite eateries. Despite our industry looking very different from the refuge of “wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths” as described in Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, it is still an industry rife with problems. The idea of unionizing restaurants has been floated around for many years, but nothing substantial has ever materialized.
The pandemic has wrought havoc on the restaurant industry, and nearly a year after restaurants were first forced to close their dining rooms, many endure (although barely scraping by), with some improbably turning a profit. In contrast, nearly a quarter of restaurant workers remain unemployed despite a wage subsidy designed to help businesses rehire furloughed employees. Why? According to Sarah Bailey of the Toronto-based non-profit the Full Plate, “The help the government has extended to the industry at large — rent and wage subsidies most notably — helps business owners, but fails to even scratch the surface for workers who are struggling for their basic necessities.”
We, and I include myself in this, have been championing the need to support local restaurants at all costs, but when we support these restaurants we must also ask ourselves who benefits from the support. What responsibility do restaurants have in restoring the fractured workforce? Our patronage of restaurants is vital for the future of the industry but that support isn’t necessarily reaching the people in the industry who need it the most. We’re supporting local restaurants but who’s supporting the restaurant workers?
Fortunately, there’s an answer to that question. Following the closure of restaurants in March of 2020, a number of nonprofits aimed at fundraising for unemployed restaurant workers popped up across the country. In Montreal, the Montreal Restaurant Workers Relief Fund (MRWRF) was established as a spin-off from a fund set up in New York, and shortly thereafter Toronto followed suit. Recently, The MRWRF and the Full Plate (along with more than half-a-dozen other non-profits) joined forces to establish the Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition (CRWC). The coalition’s goal, as stated in their mandate is, “to advocate to local and national politicians to create a more just, equitable, and sustainable employment for the workers of this sector through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.”
Kaitlin Doucette, the Montreal-based co-founder of the CWRC acknowledges that there are restaurant owners working to improve working conditions but there’s still a need to do more.
“There are a lot of amazing operators and owners who have endeavoured to create conditions that are generative and just and safe for their workers, but it’s not everybody. What we’ve been seeing and hearing from the workers community is that there are [owners] that aren’t living up to that standard.” These standards can be nebulous, so the advocacy group has laid out its plans to ameliorate working conditions for restaurant workers under three main demands.
The first: permanently adapt the rules of EI (employment insurance) to include precarious workers. For clarity, precarious work refers to permanent employment that does not offer access to basic employment rights, namely paid leave, secure wages and access to health and employment insurance. EI doesn’t factor tips into calculating benefits and many restaurant workers fail to meet the number of required hours to qualify for EI. The CRWC is lobbying the federal government to extend EI to all precarious workers and is asking them to consider the $500 per week standard set by CERB as the minimum benefit to ensure these workers stay out of poverty.
The second CRWC demand: define and enforce fair work hours and wages. The restaurant industry — especially the fine-dining branch — has often manipulated the ideas of passion and dedication to craft as a way to underpay kitchen staff. It’s common practice, for example, for aspiring employees to participate in unpaid “trial” shifts, which typically run for eight hours or more. These are justified as a way to demonstrate commitment and evaluate a candidate’s abilities. It’s a “try before you buy” type of mentality, except we’re not talking about a used car, we’re talking about someone’s livelihood. Actually landing a job doesn’t guarantee good wages either, and many restaurants pay their kitchen staff a fixed salary.
When compared to the idea of a tip-based wage for servers, a secured salary seems good, no? Well, not exactly. For cooks, being salaried is in its own way a death sentence. The fixed salary is based on a 40-hour workweek, but rarely, if ever, do cooks work such stable hours. In my career, an average work day was considered 10 hours and often became 12 or 14 — overtime was never accounted for. This is typically justified by arguing that the cost of paying everyone for all their hours wouldn’t be offset by the revenue made by the restaurant. There’s no doubt that restaurant profit margins are thin, but this line of reasoning would suggest the independent restaurant business model simply can’t make enough money to properly pay their staff.
I brought up this idea with John Winter Russel, the chef-owner of Candide, and his opinion on the subject couldn’t be more clear: “Bullshit — it’s blatantly not true. You can’t build a business on the idea that you’re going to exploit people’s labour.”
Labour is the number one overhead cost for restaurants but it’s also the most essential expense. Through decades of exalting suffering for one’s craft as the most coveted badge of honour for restaurant workers, any notion of fair compensation for labour has been cast aside as snivelling complaints of those not cut out for the job.
“That [labour exploitation] doesn’t happen at Candide. People get paid for their time — you put systems in place to make sure everyone is properly taken care of.”
This may come as shocking news to some, but in that regard, Candide is in the minority. “It’s very clear that the reason we have labour laws is because there are people who are going to try and exploit people for every hour, every cent — for everything they can,” adds, Russel.
This is precisely why the CRWC is lobbying for federal legislators to ensure restaurant workers have access to paid overtime, reasonable hours and are compensated for every hour of work — conditions that should be common sense.
The third and final CRWC demand: Adequate health protections for restaurant workers. This demand is obviously catalyzed by the current global health crisis but it also speaks to a dangerous symptom of a work-above-everything mentality that many restaurants demand. Part of that martyrdom has to do with working through illness.
During one of my unpaid trial shifts for a chef I won’t name, I was told a story about this chef’s mentor who never, under any circumstances, ever missed a shift, even when he was undergoing chemotherapy. This was a thinly veiled character test. Was I one of these hipster cooks with far-flung ideas about quality of life, or was I a real cook — the kind willing to forgo anything and everything in service of my noble craft, even if I was dying of cancer? Most of the restaurants I worked at never batted an eyelash when I was sick — they got my shift covered and I was given the day off (without pay, mind you).
Therein lies another, arguably more problematic, issue with the lack of access to adequate health protections. For precarious workers, the options are to work sick or stay home and miss a paycheque. It’s a serious problem for the industry that’s only been underscored by the current health crisis. The restaurant industry is a client-facing one and adequate protections aren’t currently commonplace for this industry.
The CRWC is lobbying for universal standards for PPE as well as guaranteeing the federally mandated 10-days paid sick leave are available for all restaurant workers regardless of the amount of hours they work per month. As is so eloquently expressed in the CRWC mandate: “The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the vulnerabilities of restaurant workers in health crises. Restaurant workers deserve dignified and decent health leave.”
The past year has been an exercise in reimagining a centuries-old industry. And I should add that while I am critical of the restaurant industry, I am deeply passionate about the industry’s cultural value. Restaurants can be powerful vehicles for cultural movements, they can be pillars of community and safe spaces for marginalized people to find meaningful work. The fundamental motives of running a restaurant are often noble but we can’t allow passion, beauty or even good intentions to supersede the importance of ensuring good working conditions for all.
As the restaurant industry attempts to recover from the effects of COVID-19 there will undoubtedly be a period of rebuilding — the CRWC is fighting to rebuild the industry better. Sometimes a toppling of the status-quo is the only way to push forward with positive changes. We’ve labeled these individuals, these precarious workers as “essential” over the course of the year. It’s about time that they are guaranteed the same basic rights that come with employment in nearly every other sector. We’ve spoken a lot about “being in this together,” about support; this movement can’t just come from the top down, it requires action from the public and from restaurant owners themselves.
As a restaurant owner, Russell’s perspective on the CRWC demands is this: “These aren’t drastic changes. They aren’t anything that any business owner should be afraid of. [Restaurant owners] should be trying to sign on and scream as loudly as they can to get [these measures passed] because these are the people that make their businesses better.”
Dignity, financial security and personal well-being should be guaranteed whether you wash dishes or run the company that manufactures them. ■
To support the efforts of the CRWC, you can sign the petition on their website.
For more on the food and drink scene in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.