A year into the COVID-19 pandemic and things are still looking bleak for Canada’s restaurant industry. The financial relief provided to restaurant owners, especially by provincial governments, has been largely ineffective. Guidelines for opening and closing are ad hoc and sudden. Proactive solutions like loosening liquor laws to create even a sliver of extra income for businesses still remains to be seen in some places. For the workers of this industry, who were already precarious pre-pandemic, this has been a time of unparalleled instability.
In numbers alone, Canada’s 1.2 million restaurant workers, who represent 7 percent of the country’s workforce, are significant. They are a large enough demographic that they have the potential to affect virus contagion nationally, and yet, support for them and their industry has been waning at best. Of those who have remained employed throughout the pandemic, most are still without paid sick leave, even amid this global health crisis. And as dining rooms begin to open in parts of the country, owners and workers are once again being tasked to act as pseudo epidemiologists, running through symptoms, risks, and recourse should there be a COVID-19 scare or, worse, an active case within their workplace. In the face of rapidly advancing new virus variants, even the government’s personal protective equipment and contact-tracing guidelines seem impotent in regards to ensuring safety. The situation feels just as untenable and directionless for all involved today as it did back in March 2020.
One thing has changed since the pandemic’s onset, though: Mutual aid groups with robust programs designed to respond to the cracks in a leaky, unregulated industry abound. As it turns out, if you leave a group of mostly under- and unemployed, well-informed industry professionals in the midst of a crisis and with insufficient government support, a vibrant network of grassroots organizations will emerge. Among them are mental health resources Not 9 to 5 and Kitchens 4 Missions; wellness initiatives like Mise en Health; the wealth redistribution programs of the Bartenders Benevolent Fund, the Montreal Restaurant Workers Relief Fund (which I co-founded), and the Toronto Restaurant Workers Relief Fund; BIPOC-led wine mentorship and education program Vinequity; and the Full Plate, which offers free social services tailored to the community. These are all led by workers trying to do it for themselves.
Despite the beauty inherent in this solidarity in action, there’s one thing I hear often from fellow restaurant workers-cum-community organizers, and that’s a hope that their services will someday be rendered obsolete — that the need for them will cease to exist, not because the vaccine is in sight, but because reforms to social programs, labour laws, and regulations that provide greater fairness across the board are. Mutual aid and community care are providing an ongoing balm to the industry, but they cannot do all the work, nor can they subsist on solidarity and independent action alone.
2020 was the year New Orleans-based activist and chef Tunde Wey said that we should let the industry die. Many of us who have experienced the problems of restaurants have likely at one moment or another held this belief whole-heartedly. From top-down hierarchies and wealth concentration, restaurants magnify the problems of capitalism. The crisis has only exacerbated these pre-existing systemic faults. Though restaurant workers often feel the weight of these problems, we aren’t alone in seeing them.
Over the course of the past few years, coverage in food media has allowed us to peek behind the veil of the inner workings of restaurants. The prevalence of wage theft, lack of health care, underpayment, and overwork are no longer solely the fodder of whisper networks. Stories of abuse and reform (often self-authored) are churned out by the media, evoking collective shock that seems to be swiftly followed by collective amnesia. We’ve seen how the proverbial sausage is made, and we don’t like it.
The word “rough” has been so permanently affixed to this industry that we yawn at its overuse, its meaning having been completely hollowed. We know that fast-paced and intense work environments, deep hierarchical structures, and problematic wage practices such as sub-minimum wage standards, tipping, and unpaid overtime are engrained in the business model, yet we continuously fail to tie them to systems of oppression. If you’ve worked in a restaurant, you will be shown, time and time again, just how citizen status, able-bodiedness, sexuality, race, class, gender, and education impact treatment within the industry. Restaurants are so entangled in narratives of exceptionalism — the story of the archetypal chef who worked their way up the ladder comes to mind — that many fail to realize that for the majority of workers, conditions are not decent or dignified. Even though they’ve been occurring within the workforce for a long time now, conversations recognizing the legacy of harm embedded within the intersections of identity and food service seem to have only just begun to make some form of impact.
I’ve heard the words “unimaginable,” “radical,” or even “impossible” used to describe the just, sustainable, and equitable future that restaurant-workers-turned-activists are working toward. Existing labour law, when it comes to restaurant work, is toothless and patchwork at best, with little real recourse for workers in compromised, exploitative, or abusive situations, even in the so-called “normal” times. The option of wide-scale reform — which would benefit owners as well, with greater employee retention and industry longevity — is too easily discounted. I will likely die on the hill of not understanding how basic labour standards can be called a uniquely impossible proposition for our industry.
Some restaurant workers choose this profession despite knowing its flaws. Many others come to it not by choice but by necessity. For those of us attempting to change the structure of restaurant work, it is a loving protest. Even in their current incarnations, restaurants can be places of romance, of care, of leisure, and, most importantly, of generosity. For many communities, they are places of refuge, crucial third spaces. In rare examples, they can even be places where we can try to reduce systemic harm: Ownership can be community-oriented; labour structures more fair and shared. Restaurants are places where many single moms, like my own, have been able to work in order to make ends meet. But the opportunities they have provided to some do not absolve them of their duty to repair.
The “radicalism” of our acts is in asking for a change and in working toward better, more comprehensively decent treatment for all restaurant workers. After a year of black squares on social media, public professions about the need for change, and a pandemic that peeled away any sense of stability in restaurant work, you would think moving social justice work beyond performance wouldn’t be so radical anymore. Community organizers have managed to yield some measure of fruit in a field of blight, but their efforts are neither exhaustive nor permanent. Nor can they fix a broken industry on their own. They shouldn’t have to.