By Rebecca Gordon
Without restaurant workers, the magic of a restaurant wouldn’t exist. Whether it’s the friendly server who makes customers feel welcome, the cook who can prepare multiple dishes at once or the dishwasher who makes sure every plate is spotless, each one of these people contributes to the success of the restaurant. Nevertheless, many restaurant workers have never been treated as essential. Restaurant workers tend to endure unpredictable hours, low pay, unsafe work conditions and poor employment practices.
When covid-19 hit, the issues grew exponentially. Over the last two years, restaurant workers have faced multiple rounds of layoffs and decreased income. They’ve also been forced to navigate constantly changing public health guidelines and needed to enforce masking and vaccine passports, all while fearing that their public facing job could put them at risk of getting sick. The 1.2 million restaurant workers in Canada have had their lives turned upside down.
Over the course of the pandemic, there has been an uprising among restaurant workers. Laid off restaurant workers for the first time have had the chance to slow down and reflect on their work. Workers have started to realize how important it is to have balance in their lives, to take care of their mental health and bodies and get paid fairly for their work. For some laid off restaurant workers, it became impossible to access income support programs such as employment insurance (EI), CERB or CWLB. In 2020, a number of worker-led mutual aid groups began forming such as the Toronto Restaurant Worker Relief Fund, Montreal Restaurant Worker Relief Fund and the Full Plate. These groups started distributing emergency funds, grocery gift cards and resources to struggling restaurant workers.
Many of these mutual aid groups determined to make a permanent change in the industry, began working together and formed the Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition (CRWC). This group advocates for restaurant workers by pushing for systemic change resulting in equitable, dignified and just employment.
As a grassroots organization, CRWC is driven by restaurant workers and supported by hospitality non-profits and restaurant owners who believe change is needed in the restaurant industry. The group has been working to lobby federal and provincial governments to provide a more robust response to the covid-19 crisis and to create legislation that will better protect restaurant workers. The restaurant industry is an unregulated industry. Many restaurant workers and employers lack awareness around legal rights concerning issues such as wages, hours of work and harassment. At the end of 2020, CRWC launched a petition asking the government to improve access to EI for hospitality workers, provide greater health protections through paid sick days, mask use and universal contact tracing and ensuring restaurant workers receive fair hours and wages. The petition amassed over 21,800 signatures and caught the attention of media and elected government officials. CRWC continues to meet with government officials, consulting on government labour bills and working to organize the workforce.
It is a challenge to mobilize the restaurant workforce. In fact, the restaurant industry is the largest workforce in Canada without widespread unionization. It isn’t that restaurant workers do not want to be unionized, but rather it is due to the restrictive regulations, cost and time-consuming process of unionization that makes the idea seem overwhelming. Unionization requires workers to organize within each individual company. In Canada there are over 97,000 restaurants, bars and caterers across the country and most of them are small-medium sized businesses. Unionizing a small restaurant means that there are less people available to spread the organizing work. It’s also challenging with a transient workforce that is too busy working long and unpredictable hours to find time to attend meetings and educate themselves on labour regulations. These are difficult hurdles that will take time to overcome. But for now, the Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition can act as an alternative method to unify the industry and lobby for better worker protection for all.
It is exciting to see restaurant workers working together across the country in pursuit of improved working conditions. As we talk about saving hospitality and reimagining the future of dining, restaurant workers need to be a part of the discussion. They have been working tirelessly throughout the pandemic and they see a future in the industry where they are treated as professionals. Professionalism to the worker means being provided with the same labour rights as those in other industries – working in a safe workplace, fair wages, predictable schedules, health and dental benefits and even just being allowed to take breaks. One thing we know for sure is that as this worker-led labour movement continues to grow, we will see improvements not only on worker wellbeing but also that of the restaurant industry.