The first wave of the coronavirus pandemic saw grassroots, worker-led organizations independently crop up across Canada to provide relief and resources to those employed in the restaurant industry. Now, as the number of cases tied to the second wave of the pandemic continues to swell, some of these same organizations have formed a coalition to lobby for legislation that addresses the ongoing inequities in the sector.
After launching in October with seven partner organizations, the Canadian Restaurant Workers Coalition (CRWC) published a petition on Friday seeking immediate government action on issues that have both predated and been exacerbated by the crisis. Its goal is to “ensure basic labour standards” are met for hospitality workers in Canada, which make up the fourth largest employment sector in the country. The petition has already amassed close to 3,000 signatures.
“The pandemic exposed the frailties of our particular industry, but any person who’s ever worked in a restaurant can tell you that, at some point, they’ve encountered something that’s been questionable, be it harassment, tip discrepancy, uncompensated hours, or something else,” says Sarah Bailey, co-founder of CRWC, and the architect behind The Full Plate, a Toronto-based nonprofit providing access to mental health services, legal aid, and other resources for hospitality workers. “Our thinking is: If we can harness the almost two million workers in our industry, the government will have to pay attention.”
For its first order of business, the CRWC has outlined three demands seeking: 1) permanent changes to employment insurance, which has historically disadvantaged restaurant workers whose unusual and at times unreported hours and tip-based income may have previously disqualified them from benefits; 2) fair and standardized wages and hours, and mechanisms in place to ensure these are being respected; and 3) adequate health protections, such as universal requirements for PPE and contact tracing amid the pandemic, and federally mandated paid sick leave for all restaurant workers.
“In my opinion, those first three demands are pretty logical, and I think there will be very few Canadians who would argue with them. But the reality of restaurant work is not going to be solved with one petition,” says Kaitlin Doucette, CRWC’s other founder and a sommelier by trade, who was also responsible for spearheading the Montreal Restaurant Workers Relief Fund (MRWRF), a mutual aid organization providing emergency economic relief to the city’s restaurant and bar workers during the COVID-19 crisis. “It’s going to take continued and sustained support for this worker set. But right now, it’s really just about getting workers above water level and on par, so that we can build on that.”
Doucette believes that a series of systemic solutions, as opposed to short-lived fixes, is the only way to reduce the precarity of this workforce. “One of the motivations behind starting the coalition was hearing folks say, ‘Workers just need to get back to work,’’ Doucette recalls. “But what I was hearing from my community was quite different. It was, ‘No, what we really need is help.’ A lot of workers were making the choice between a paycheck and their health and safety, even before the pandemic. That’s the reality, and it is particularly the case for those who are most marginalized. Restaurants reopening doesn’t solve everything for workers.”
Galvanized by months of anti-oppression movements around the world and recognizing their shared vision for more ethical and equitable restaurant employment, it was in the summer that Bailey and Doucette first decided to tackle these fissures together. They’ve spent months laying the groundwork for the coalition and talking to community members about how and to what end they could apply pressure on government leaders to enact change.
The pair, and their respective organizations, have since been joined by other signatories across Canada, including the Toronto Restaurant Workers Relief Fund; the Bartenders Benevolent Fund; Not 9 to 5, a nonprofit offering support to workers struggling with issues related to mental health and addiction; and Vinequity, which advocates for equitable treatment for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ wine professionals in Canada.
The hope is that this cohort will only continue to grow, along with the scale of its impact. “It can’t just be one petition advocating for you in one moment in history,” Bailey says. “No, this is going to be something that grows, and that is here to stay.”