On the Scourge of Racism in Hospitality and Navigating Routes Towards Equality

The Intelligence Brief is our weekly compendium of food and drink news sourced from outlets all over the world, including right here at home.

Over the past two weeks we’ve seen uprisings and protest on a global scale in reaction to police violence against Black communities. These movements are also happening within the context of a global pandemic that has disproportionately affected Black people and has resulted in a marked rise of anti-Asian racism and violence, both at home and abroad. This week’s Intelligence Brief is informed by years of work by many activists and educators both within and outside the industry including Ashtin Berry (@thecollectress), Christina Veira (@christinaveira) and Rachel Cargle (@rachel.cargle) among many others and will focus on the critical importance of anti-racist movements and calls for accountability as they relate to the hospitality industry.

To provide historical context within Canada, most restaurants in the country continue to operate on a tipping model which has its roots in withholding paid wages from formerly enslaved workers in the US.

“After the Constitution was amended in the wake of the Civil War, slavery was ended as an institution but those who were freed from bondage were still limited in their choices. Many who did not end up sharecropping worked in menial positions, such as servants, waiters, barbers and railroad porters. These were pretty much the only occupations available to them. For restaurant workers and railroad porters, there was a catch: many employers would not actually pay these workers, under the condition that guests would offer a small tip instead. ‘These industries demanded the right to basically continue slavery with a $0 wage and tip,’ Jayaraman says.”

In Canada, tipping models continue within the restaurant industry including an adjusted, lower minimum wage. While the province is moving in the direction of a standardized minimum wage, we still have another year to go before this is implemented.

Beyond the issue of tipping, research also shows that occupational segregation continues in the restaurant and hospitality industry along both racial and gender lines.

“While Jim Crow regulated the enforced separation between white and African American patrons in restaurants, today we largely find that restaurant workers are effectively segregated by race and gender by a partition between livable-wage server and bartender positions and poverty wage busser, runner, and kitchen positions, and between limited service (fast food), full service casual, and full service fine-dining restaurants.”

This research is backed by Canadian data which shows a growing racial wage gap within the country. In addition, while we know the food, agriculture and hospitality industry has a lower barrier for access to entry, it also makes up 6 of the 10 lowest paying jobs in Canada according to data from 2018.

The combination of a tipping model and an adjusted minimum wage of $13.95 (in a city where a living wage is defined as $19.50), creates extreme precarity for many folks working in the industry.

“The liquor server minimum wage is significant. It recognizes and legitimizes the norm of tipping and condones a wage-tip relation. This is problematic because customers are outside of the employer-employee relationship. With the practice of tipping, customers participate in an important role normally performed by an employer, paying workers for their labour, but are beyond labour law’s reach. The wage-tip relation contributes to precarious work in the restaurant industry. Tipping makes restaurant work precarious because it is an unreliable source of income. Unlike an hourly wage, the amount a customer pays a server or a bartender for their labour is not worked out in advance.”

According to research, not only does the model as a whole result in instability for staff, it also encourages racism and exploitation resulting in disproportionate harm for staff of colour, particularly Black employees.

“As studies, like one Cornell University report, have shown, some diners let race, gender, and attractiveness impact how much they pay servers: Most dramatically, diners of all races tend to give higher tips to white servers and lower tips to Black servers.”

The precarity of this model became even more apparent during recent widespread restaurant shutdowns when staff who were previously reliant on tips as a major source of their income saw that disappear altogether. The re-openings may also be of little help when most restaurants are running at reduced capacity and patrons are still reluctant to dine-in.

Beyond wage instability and inequity, Black employees and employees of colour continue to experience racism in the workplace through discriminatory hiring practices, microaggressions and job insecurity.

In addition, a recent study out of McMaster showed that racialized LGBTQ2S+ service workers in Southern Ontario experience higher rates of violence within the workplace with little support from management.

“In the survey, violence was most pronounced for participants who were racialized non-white, gender non-conforming, and precariously employed (contract and self-employed), showing how different facets of workers’ identities and situations contributed to their vulnerability at work. Indeed, racialization proved to be the most significant determinant of violence from customers—with over a third of those who were racialized nonwhite suspecting that their race was a motivating factor in the incident(s)—emphasizing the need to consider the pervasiveness of racism in efforts to address discrimination from customers.”

On the flip side of the dining experience, research also shows a prevalence of race-based discrimination by servers against Black diners.

“Nearly 57% of the sample respondents self-reported to at least sometimes treat customers differently according to their race… Likewise 52.8% reported to at least sometimes observe their coworkers treating Black patrons poorly.”

Case in point (among many): Remember when a Starbucks employee called the police on two Black patrons while they were waiting for a meeting to begin?

As restaurants begin to re-open both locally and around the world, there is solid evidence to suggest that food workers – and particularly employees of colour – will be most vulnerable.

“Those suggesting that cultural and lifestyle factors make people of color more vulnerable to COVID-19 haven’t been as outspoken about how the workplace contributes to racial disparities in coronavirus cases. Black and Latinx people are more likely to work in occupations, including food service, that require them to interact closely with others.”

While the global shutdowns were already raising questions around how to rebuild the restaurant industry, this dearth of research, testimonies, and long-standing calls to action from BIPOC restaurant workers (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) demonstrates the need for the industry to look critically at itself and meaningfully do the work to build safer spaces both for their employees and their patrons.

So how have some restaurants responded to the current protests on the ground? Minneapolis restaurant owner Tom Beevas has converted his restaurant into a hub of support for protestors on the front lines.

“We decided to keep our doors open through the protests so that we could be a safe place for people who were out there. If not us, then who? If not now, then when? There are long term problems that we have to fix in this country, but right now Minneapolis is ground zero. We have to be in this.”

At Seward Cafe – a Minneapolis worker-owned restaurant – staff returned to work to prepare and distribute food to the community.

Meanwhile, two Minneapolis restaurant owners who’s properties sustained damaged during the protests say they stand in solidarity with the movement and calls for justice.

Recent calls to action have included calls to support and amplify Black businesses around the world. Here’s a list from the Huffington Post of Black-owned restaurants across Canada.

And finally, here’s a breakdown of Black-owned restaurants across the Lower Mainland.

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