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Understanding sexual harassment in the restaurant industry

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I recently wrote a blog discussing a case adjudicated by the Prince Edward Island Human Rights Commission, which involved allegations of sexual harassment at a small local restaurant and the cost consequences of that employer failing to have a sexual harassment policy in place. The Commission’s Panel was alive to the nuanced and insidious nature of sexual harassment faced by those in the restaurant industry – conduct often done in private, often characterized as “joking,” frequently overlooked or misunderstood by employers who fail to investigate in a timely fashion (or at all), and facilitated by a power imbalance along both gendered and professional lines.

Unfortunately, sexual harassment in the restaurant and hospitality industry is historical and widespread, impacting those in the most vulnerable and precarious employment scenarios – undocumented immigrants and BIPOC1 individuals, members of the LGBTIQ+2 communities, women, and those without access to grievance mechanisms or union protection. An Inquiry Report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission (“OHRC”)3 captured these myriad barriers in the restaurant industry succinctly:

Restaurant work is an important source of employment… it is often an entry point for newcomers into the Canadian job market, and an accessible career option for many others, as most positions do not require specialized training or higher education.

However, restaurant work can also be precarious, with low wages, reliance on tips and part-time hours. Women are more likely than men to hold precarious employment and are more likely to experience poverty. Hosts, bartenders and servers in Ontario are predominantly female, and more than one-third are young women under age 24. Factors such as lack of awareness of human rights laws, age, recent immigration, uncertain employment, reliance on tips, low rates of unionization, and the prevalence of sexual harassment and sex discrimination in the restaurant industry can increase worker vulnerability. This means that many employees are afraid to complain about dress codes, sexual harassment or other discrimination, and that discriminatory environments and staff complaints are often not appropriately addressed. Some workers fear reprisal for raising concerns about dress codes and other sexual harassment…

These issues persist. Back in 2015, Food Service and Hospitality Magazine wrote extensively4 about the “open secret” that women in the restaurant industry are sexualized, with scenarios “running the gamut of irritating suggestions” including being asked to wear more make-up, tighter shirts, or shorter skirts, while other accounts detailed sexual abuse. The article suggested the problem is treated like a “live grenade.” In 2018, reporters Ivy Knight and Ann Hui conducted a Globe and Mail investigation revealing “a wide-ranging pattern of alleged sexual advances and sexual harassment” by (in)famous vintner Norman Hardie – a familiar experience for many working in wineries, bars, and restaurants across the country. Hardie ultimately apologized to “those who felt marginalized, demeaned, or objectified while working alongside” him.5 These offer modest examples of sexual harm in the hospitality sector, alongside a lack of understanding and accountability, misogyny, and pervasive rape mythology. One does not have to look far to find those cases of criminal culpability for sexual violence occurring in restaurants, such as the College Street Bar gang rape in Toronto.6

In 2020, Statistics Canada conducted its Survey on Sexual Misconduct at Work (“SSMW”), to collect information more broadly on “the nature, extent, and impact of inappropriate sexualized behaviours, discrimination, and sexual assaults that occur in a work-related setting in the Canadian provinces.” The report,7 released in in August 2021, provides detailed statistical support for the prevalence of sexualized violence amongst vulnerable employees across sectors in Canada.

In present-day efforts to better understand these issues, on the opposite coast from the PEI Human Rights Commission, a research partnership between Thompson Rivers University (“TRU”) and the Kamloops Sexual Assault Research Centre is studying the prevalence of sexual harassment in Kamloops’ hospitality industry in hopes of improving workplace safety. Spearheaded by Rochelle Stevenson, a member of TRU’s Department of Environment, Culture and Society, the project has several phases. The first of which – completed last year – involved reaching out to every local restaurant to discern whether they had a sexual harassment policy in place, how this was communicated to staff, or if there existed a formal complaints process. Of 230 restaurants, researchers spoke with approximately 30%, only half of whom had a policy in place and about 30% had no policy at all. The second phase involves surveying8 as many local staff as possible (anonymously) about their experiences with sexual harassment, and the efficacy of any related policies in their workplaces.

While the project is still in its infancy, initial trends have indicated certain troubling but unsurprising findings: that there seems to be “very widespread” sexual harassment in the local food and beverage industry; that a gap exists in understanding what sexual harassment actually is; and that “100 percent of people who are responding to the survey say it’s happened to them.”9

While the findings in Kamloops are not unique, any efforts to better understand sexualized violence in the restaurant industry will be useful for drafting and implementing appropriate workplace policies, effectively training staff, and enforcing zero-tolerance for sexual harassment and violence. This, in turn, may enhance employees’ sense of workplace safety, promote a more positive workplace culture, and ensure leadership is accountable for responding in an appropriate and timely fashion to forms of sexual violence.

1 Black, Indigenous, People of Colour.

2 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, and “+” indicating additional identities along the gender spectrum.

3Not on the menu: OHRC inquiry report on sexualized and gender-based dress codes in restaurants” (March 2017), online: Ontario Human Rights Commission <https://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/book/export/html/20981>

4 Kostuch Media Ltd., “How is the Restaurant Industry Dealing With Sexual Harassment in the Kitchen?” (October 2, 2015), online: Food Service and Hospitality Magazine <https://www.foodserviceandhospitality.com/how-is-the-restaurant-industry-dealing-with-sexual-harassment-in-the-kitchen/?cn-reloaded=1>

5 Alexander Mazur, “Wine-maker Norman Hardie apologizes in wake of sexual misconduct allegations” (June 21, 2018), online: Global News <https://globalnews.ca/news/4286450/wine-maker-norman-hardie-apologizes-in-wake-of-sexual-misconduct-allegations/>

6 R. v. MacMillan, 2020 ONSC 3299 (CanLII).

7 Marta Burczycka, “Workers’ experiences of inappropriate sexualized behaviours, sexual assault and gender-based discrimination in the Canadian provinces, 2020” (August 12, 2021), online: Statistics Canada < https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2021001/article/00015-eng.htm >

8 Sexual Harassment in Hospitality in Kamloops Research Project! (trubox.ca)

9 Kristen Holliday, “Kamloops research project focuses on sexual harassment in the restaurant industry” (January 3, 2024), online: Castanet < https://www.castanet.net/news/Kamloops/465260/Kamloops-research-project-focuses-on-sexual-harassment-in-the-restaurant-industry

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