Gavin McGarrigle: Hiring based on “sex appeal” shows we’re still in Stone Age
A former server at the Shark Club restaurant in Richmond recently filed a B.C. human rights complaint related to an allegedly discriminatory dress code based on “intelligent sex appeal”.
The Shark Club staff must adhere to a dress code that includes a “form-fitting top and a form-fitting skirt”, a position rejected by the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association as illegitimate. The Shark Club claims this is a voluntary dress code—if you accept that “voluntary” means that you can choose to work there or not.
I’ve worked in the past as a server in the restaurant industry for over 10 years and came to know what is immediately obvious to any customer visiting many of the restaurants of the same type as the Shark Clubs of the world: it appears that these companies deliberately hire serving staff based on looks and require their (mostly female) serving staff to wear provocative outfits complete with high heels, heavy makeup, and form fitting attire.
Is this right? Is this the kind of society we want to endorse?
If you are a skilled, experienced, hard-working, and outgoing individual who knows how to provide good service to customers, should it matter what you look like or what your gender is?
The common denominator among these kinds of restaurants is that workers are not protected by a union. In addition to simply not offering you the job in the first place if you don’t meet their “sex appeal” requirements (not that they would ever admit that), management in non-union restaurants has tremendous power to ensure compliance with their expected norms at work.
There are no binding seniority systems, so management can slash hours of work from one week to the next, serving sections can be moved from a profitable area to one by the washrooms that customers want to avoid, performance can be minutely criticized, and employees can be let go without cause provided notice is given.
Contrast that lack of protection to the majority of downtown Vancouver or Victoria unionized hotels where most of these hotels have very successful restaurants serving the family, business, sports fan, and high-end clientele markets. Enter these restaurants and you will get what should be reasonable in our society: efficient, professional service delivered by engaging staff from all walks of life, in all sizes and shapes. These hard-working men and women ensure that their employer’s restaurant does well and they do so while being able to work in dignity and self-respect.
Dress codes which do not demean the worker combined with a clean and well groomed appearance are completely acceptable requirements in most circumstances. This does not extend to unreasonable requirements which have nothing to do with the ability to perform the job.
In 1998, staff at the Cheesecake Café in Victoria (very similar to a Milestone’s type of restaurant) chose to join the Canadian Auto Workers, in large part due to their desire to be respected and to achieve dignity in their workplace. Once we negotiated our first collective agreement, we had the ability to deal with arbitrary cuts in hours, unfair treatment, and fair dress code issues.
Workers at many White Spot restaurants also have the benefit of a collective agreement and we work hard constantly to ensure that our members are treated with dignity and respect. No one can argue that the White Spot chain has not grown even while many of their stores are covered under our collective agreement. Workers with unions at least have a voice while those without unions have to go it alone.
I’m sure many years ago that restaurants with signs that read “whites only” or places that discouraged gay clientele or women who chose to breastfeed their children were packed and people could “choose” not to eat or work there.
You can change your experience and training level to make you an attractive candidate for a position as a server but you can’t change whether or not you are considered attractive, your gender, your skin colour, and so on.
The provincial government must undertake a thorough investigation of major restaurant chains to determine if there is systemic discrimination in their hiring and dress code practices and introduce legislation, regulation, and additional penalties if required to protect the dignity of workers in the restaurant industry.
All qualified British Columbians should be entitled to work in restaurants regardless of their level of subjective personal “beauty”, regardless of their gender, race, or sexual orientation, and regardless of outdated stereotypical and misogynistic male views of what they want to see when they go out to eat.
Gavin McGarrigle is a national representative with the Canadian Auto Workers Union and has represented workers at many different hotels including the Fairmont Empress Hotel and the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. The CAW represents many workers in the hospitality industry, including hotels, restaurants, casinos, and fast-food outlets such as KFC.