Women working in restaurants are harassed by male customers on a daily basis, but with hundreds of dollars a night in tips at stake, speaking out is difficult.
This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.
When Lydia, 28, was forced to change her bartending uniform from Lululemon pants and a low-cut top to booty shorts and an even lower neckline, she said no.
At the time she worked at a sports bar in Ottawa, and was making about $225 to $300 a night in tips.
"They said, 'OK, that's fine, if you won't wear this, we're going to put you on breakfast shifts,' which is where you're making like $30 a shift," Lydia said.
So, she obliged to wear the new uniform.
When money like that is on the line, speaking out against any sort of injustice, including unwanted exposure or harassment on the job, becomes a lot more difficult.
"If you've been serving someone for the last four hours, and their bill is at $500, that tip is going to make or break whether you can afford a cab home," Lydia said. "And then the asshole makes a disgusting comment to you—what are you going to do? They have the power to withhold your pay from you if you don't act subservient and hold back."
Unfortunately, similar situations are a reality for many women who work in the restaurant industry.
Earlier this month, the Ontario government announced a new $1.3 million program that will train restaurant employees on how to deal with harassment in the workforce from both customers and co-workers.
As someone who currently works as a server, I think this action toward sexual and physical harassment in restaurants, while minuscule, is far overdue.
Personally, I've had male customers pat my ass, have been told by co-workers to avoid certain areas of the restaurant because groups of men showed a little too much interest in me, and have had men invade my personal space to the point where we were inches apart or touching.
In Ontario, recent amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act makes it mandatory for employers to provide employees with a written policy regarding how to report and deal with workplace assault or harassment—something that's often only provided by word of mouth, if at all. Whether it's initiated by customers, co-workers, or managers, harassment is defined as a comment or conduct that's known or ought to be known as unwelcome.
This unwelcome behavior is reflected in the atmosphere most women who work in restaurants find themselves in, ranging from male-driven, after-work bar culture, and lack of management, to skimpy uniforms and overall male-dominance of the industry.
After I spoke to about a dozen female front-of-house workers about their experiences on the job, I learned that one the main proponents to harassment is the practice of tipping.
As Lydia said, it's difficult to speak out when your money is on the line.
Most servers rely on their tips to get by. And for servers like me who are also students, there's not much that tops getting more than $75 every night so you can have real food in your fridge.
So when it comes to harassment on the job, servers often have to consider a bunch of factors before deciding to speak out, including how much money they can afford to lose.
Simon, a former bartender at a popular Toronto sports bar, was surprised by the bar's sexist environment in comparison to restaurants he'd worked at back home in Australia.
"We don't have tipping where I'm from," Simon said. "[But here] I feel like because you get paid by the customer, and it's a sports bar, it breeds this culture where it's OK for girls to dress skimpy."
Aayliah, 21, who has been working in restaurants since she was 15, has been physically and sexually harassed multiple times, but says that getting tips is the only way she can afford college.
Over the course of two years that Aaliyah worked at one specific Canadian chain restaurant in Toronto, she experienced the most harassment in her service career. She said that she used to pray in her car before her shifts, because she knew what would happen when she stepped on the floor. Aaliyah had men grab her bra, kiss her, and throw a beer bottle at her, all on separate occasions.
"It gave me anxiety going to work. I hated it. But I stayed there because I was broke, and I'm a student. Someone has to pay my tuition."
In an attempt to eliminate the vulnerability caused by reliance on tips and to tackle restaurant-related issues, one Earls67 restaurant in Calgary has gotten rid of tips completely.
Craig Blize, the VP of Operations for Earls Restaurants, said that not only does tipping create a competitive workplace environment, it gives customers certain expectations outside of good service.
"The idea of tipping is meant to recognize great service. But research is showing that that's actually not the case," Blize said. "[Sometimes] they're tipping based on a certain behavior or, you know, unfortunately whether the server is black or white, has blond hair or brunette, or whether there's more skin or less skin, whether the server flirts with the customer or not."
By eliminating tipping, all employees at this location get a guaranteed wage and are paid every night they work. According to Blize, this has improved respect between employees and removed the pressure that servers feel to please inappropriate guests.
While getting rid of tipping could be a possible solution, back-of-house female workers prove that tipping isn't the only issue.
Amelia Ettinger, a chef at Tallboys, a craft beer house in Toronto, points out that restaurants have slowly but surely become dominated by men, and have subsequently alienated women. Earlier this year, she posted an ad on Craigslist looking for female kitchen employees, advertising it to those who are fed up with "bro-style" kitchens.
"I find it very amusing that a woman's place up until about 50 years ago was to be in the kitchen," Ettinger said. "And now that there's any sort of prestige or the status involved, it's become a very male-dominated kitchen world."
Sarah, a woman who worked in the kitchen of a Toronto restaurant for years, made the same point when I asked her about it. It took her years to even be recognized by the other men in the kitchen... and still, she isn't confident that she will see a change.
"I don't think our system is built to support women. We say we do, but from what I've seen from my years there, I don't think that that's true," she said. "We should be supporting our women to grow and to succeed just as much as our men. We have male supervisors and kitchen managers, but I don't think there's a female kitchen manager, or has ever been a female supervisor in our region."
From a server's perspective, this is definitely a women's issue. Every time I hear a sexually suggestive comment, every time a male guest makes a remark on my appearance, and every time I hear my female co-workers complain about a customer's inappropriate behavior, I am reminded that we as women are much more vulnerable in this environment.
But at the same time, it's an issue of human rights. Male restaurant workers aren't exempt from sexual and physical harassment on the job. And unfortunately, many people working in a restaurant are hindered either by their reliance on tips, or fear of losing their job.
If more people start participating in this conversation, restaurant owners might actually start being more involved in preventing workplace harassment. And maybe people will be more aware of their behavior when they walk into a restaurant.
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