Restaurant workers deserve better

An Open Letter to Restaurants Canada

Thursday May 12, 2022

Yesterday, I took part in your 77th Annual RC Show. 

I was interested to hear how your organization, which purports to be “the voice of foodservice in Canada,” has reflected on the pandemic and its resulting social reckonings, and whether your perspectives may have changed.

For years, Restaurants Canada has fought labour interventions such as minimum wage increases for foodservice employees. Through government lobbying, media outreach, and other advocacy activities, your non-profit has dedicated significant resources to publicly undervaluing the work of the very people who fuel the restaurant industry. 

What I observed from the conference floor was an entirely different message. In six separate sessions on labour retention, presenters from within the restaurant sector spoke of the need to ensure competitive wages, fair scheduling, upward mobility, and work-life balance to attract and retain its employees. 

It’s a shame that your own organization still hasn’t gotten the message. Just last week, Restaurants Canada’s Mark von Schellwitz publicly claimed that raising the minimum wage in Saskatchewan “will make it even more difficult to hire back employees.” 

Nothing could be farther from the truth. More than 180,000 Canadians workers have left the restaurant sector since March 2020, and they haven’t fled their jobs for lower-paid work. Instead, the data shows that they’ve sought out jobs that offer higher wages, job security, and steady benefits. 

The average hourly wage for a full-time industry worker grew by just $0.58 between February 2020 and September 2021– from $16.80 to $17.38. It is absurd to imagine that these workers will be drawn back to an industry whose wages are stagnant in the face of rising inflation, and whose public voice has consistently sought to devalue them.

Rather than advocate for its employees in these extraordinary times, Restaurants Canada has sided with select restaurant owners and continued to prop up tipping as its argument for keeping wages low. For those who are unaware, tipping has a horrific origin story: following the American Civil War, formerly enslaved people were often only hired in service work positions. These roles came with the caveat that their employers wouldn’t pay them for their work, only allowing them to receive tokens of appreciation from their (mostly white) clientele.

To this day, the practice of tipping has continued to stigmatize foodservice work, suppress wages, and split the workforce among racial lines. Racial discrimination is widespread in tipping, with white service workers receiving higher gratuities than their racialized colleagues. Advocating for tip-based restaurant service maintains this status quo and furthers racial injustice. 

I recognize that restaurants have been forced to weather some of the most difficult storms of this pandemic, and that they continue to face an uncertain economic climate as food and gas prices rise. Under these circumstances, making changes to one’s business model can be intimidating. But I implore restaurant owners to look to the data: higher wages create greater community purchasing power, which can then be spent on local food establishments. When we drive wages down, a trip to the local restaurant is among one of the first things that families will cut from their budgets. 

Taking this longer-term perspective creates positive impacts. At FoodShare Toronto, where we operate a number of food-based social enterprises, we’ve successfully become a living wage employer, implemented a pay grid that ensures that the highest paid employee earns no more than three times our lowest paid employee, introduced benefits from an employee’s first day of work, and most recently, established a policy that compensates people for job interviews. As a result, we’ve seen people make the choice to support our organization, purchase our Good Food Box or the bulk produce that we sell based on FoodShare’s commitment to decent work 

In Canada, there are countless examples of small restaurants who’ve achieved similar things. Speaking to the Ottawa Citizen, small food business owner Liz Mok explained her decision to raise prices in order to pay her staff a living wage. “I was in foodservice for a very long time while in school. There were no health benefits, no stability, the pay was poor and abuse was rampant in the industry. When I graduated, it became a reality that I couldn’t make a career there. So, when I decided to start my own business, I knew that I didn’t want to create those types of jobs.”

And as was made clear at the RC Show, many businesses are eager to follow her lead and make these changes. They just need support, encouragement and leadership from their professional association.

To retain employees, we must consistently convey their value through meaningful and material supports. I’m calling on Restaurants Canada to cease its lobbying for lower wages, and start advocating for stronger social supports for everyone, including those who make the restaurant sector thrive.

If Restaurants Canada truly wishes to serve as “the voice of foodservice in Canada,” it must seek to represent and protect the same workers who make foodservice possible. 

Paul Taylor, Executive Director