SEX REPEAL Restaurant workers forced to be ‘sexy’ to get jobs

Submitted by on


YOU WON’T SEE SEX OFFERED ON RESTAURANT MENUS. But it’s there. Restaurant workers hate it. Bosses demand it. Customers like it. And there is no law against it. Yet.

“I’ve been through it all,” says Laura, a 15 year veteran of work in a dozen B.C. restaurants.

I’ve had employers make comments about my body. I’ve had male managers make comments about the way my butt looks, the way my boobs look, non-stop. I’ve had them make comments about the way my outfit looks on me. I’ve had male managers grab me. I’ve had my ass smacked,” she says.

This kind of behaviour is just the culture in a lot of restaurants, she says. “You’re expected to accept it to keep your job.”

Laura’s last restaurant job was tending bar in Fort McMurray. “The dress code there was the worst one yet,” she says. “You could see right up the A-line miniskirts whenever a server bent over or stretched up to reach a glass.”

Laura led a protest, convincing her fellow servers to wear jean shorts instead. They lost that battle. She was scolded mercilessly in a staff meeting. Soon after the restaurant burned down in the fire that engulfed Fort McMurray in 2016. Laura took this as a sign to quit restaurant work—and she did.

Sex is always a side dish
Sexism has plagued the restaurant industry forever—in fact, some restaurants, like Hooters, hang their reputation on it. The servers are beautiful. Their heels are high. Their skirts are mini. Their makeup is flawless. They’re selling you more than just your dinner.

In fact, the approach is so common the human resources industry even has a name for it. They call it “aesthetic labour” Here’s how they define it:

Aesthetic labour [is] the desire of employers to hire workers who look or act a particular way. In the restaurant industry, this often translates into women who are ‘good-looking’ or sexually available [...] Employer’s expectations commodify women’s bodies, contributing to a workplace culture in which sexual harassment of women staff becomes normalized and commonplace.

The attractiveness standard applies to men as well. But, men don’t have to endure long hours of torture wearing high heels. Something female servers say makes their work painful and dangerous.

“I would ask to take the heels off. I’d say: ‘My feet are bleeding, can I please put on my flats?’” says Emily, a 24-year-old server who’s been working in restaurants for a decade.

“The boss would tell me: ‘Well, you can take them off for five minutes—but you have to put them right back on.’ I used to have band-aids all over my feet,” she says.

Tegan spent 14 years working in restaurants. She says the work can be soul crushing.

“I won’t go so far as to say I have PTSD, but I haven’t served in two years and I still get nightmares,” she says. “It’s not a good environment

The dark truth of restaurant work is that servers often try to enhance their sex appeal. They do it to try and get bigger tips—something they need to make enough to live on.  

Restaurant work is notoriously low paying. The workers are universally treated as second class, not even worthy of the low level of respect most working people get. In fact in the USA the minimum wage for restaurant workers is $2.13 an hour. (That’s not a typo. It’s $2.13!) It’s not that bad in Canada—but it’s not that good either.

In Canada the federal government and Ontario, B.C. and Quebec allow wait staff to be paid less than the minimum wage. Quebec even lowers the rate a second time to just $9.45 an hour for workers in jobs that get tips.

Minimum wage rates in Canada run from a high of $13.60 in Alberta to something close to $11.00 an hour in the rest of the provinces. None of which come close to the $15 an hour target of the current national campaign—a target which itself falls far short of anything like a realistic living wage.

No shortage of solutions
The most obvious ways to make things fair for restaurant workers are the same as they are for all workers: namely, change the labour laws and enforce the labour laws.

One change many are calling for is to eliminate tipping, as France has done. But, to do that, without raising wages, wouldn’t help workers already scrambling to make ends meet.

One Vancouver restaurant did try to eliminate tipping and raise wages to $21 an hour to make up the difference for its workers. The policy was soon abandoned. The owner said sales were not strong enough to support the living wage she was paying. Circumstances forced her to cut wages, and bring back tipping.

Other labour law changes needed to get fair treatment for restaurant staff include:

  • eliminating the lower wage rates for restaurant workers
  • beef up employment standards to make the work less hazardous
  • beef up employment standards to make the work more reliable and predictable
  • force employers to play fair with tips
  • make it easier for workers to join a union.

One more individual solution is to file a human rights complaint. It is a process that is usually long, costly and wearing on the individual. But having a strong union in your corner can help you through it. Just ask Brittany Cooper.
Cooper is a member of Unite Here Local 40. The union had her back through several battles with The Buck & Ear Bar & Grill over their dress code. When she finally filed a human rights complaint against the restaurant the union stayed right with her.

Cooper said in her human rights complaint that protesting the dress code resulted in her being given fewer hours and less desirable shifts. Her managers singled her out for criticism and made demeaning remarks about her appearance. In the end, she was fired.

What followed were union grievances, disputes, a re-hiring, a re-firing, and finally the complaint to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

Legal counsel for Unite Here Local 40 is representing Cooper at the human rights tribunal.

See what a living wage would be where you live:


This article was originally published by The Canadian Labour Institute.  

Reprinted with permission for CALM Members use.