The restaurant industry is a fast-paced environment where employees—from the host, to the bartender, to the cooks, to the dishwashers—have to work as a team. But here in B.C., the team members handling liquor are paid significantly less than their coworkers because there is an assumption that tips will add to the wage, but those tips are often pooled and shared after each shift. To add to the inequity in earnings bartenders tend to be employed in a nonunion environment, benefits are a rare and pensions are unheard of.
B.C.’s liquor servers (most of whom are women trying to make ends meet) are paid $1.25 per hour below the regular provincial minimum wage, saving restaurant owners millions of dollars each year. Other western provinces have abandoned a liquor-server rate, the most recent being in Alberta where Premier Rachel Notley phased out the liquor-server rate last year on the way to raising the minimum wage of all workers to $15 by October 2018.
I worked as a server for many years and know firsthand that, despite the skill and talent they bring to the job, hospitality workers are often the most undervalued, underappreciated, and exploited workers in the economy.
Unifor represents thousands of these workers in high-end hotels right here in B.C. such as the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver and Empress Hotel, to White Spot and KFC outlets. I know and have seen firsthand that hospitality workers with a union can use their collective power to improve unfair working conditions, make improvements to schedules and tip distribution, and bargain higher wages and benefits.
Sadly, we can’t say the same about nonunion hospitality workers.
The B.C. Liberal government has made matters worse. Since coming to power in 2001, Gordon Campbell and now Christy Clark have gone to bat for bosses’ rights, not workers’ rights. One of the first acts of the B.C. Liberal government was to gut the Employment Standards Act, forcing workers to confront bosses directly in cases of perceived wage theft.
The liquor-server wage is the best example that the B.C. Liberals’ loyalties lie squarely with their big donors—the owners of large chains like Cactus Club, Keg, and Earls. Since 2005, the B.C. Liberals have received more than $850,000 in donations from the restaurant industry: over $230,000 from Cactus Club, more than $315,000 from the Keg, and over $265,000 from Joey and Earls. In internal communications, restaurant owners’ lobbyists at Restaurants Canada have openly thanked Christy Clark for adopting “our” minimum wage and liquor-server wage recommendations.
Clearly B.C.’s restaurant industry is in need of reform. Sexualized dress codes can be the unwritten norm at many workplaces, wages are low, benefits are limited or nonexistent, and scheduling rules under employment standards encourage widely varying hours from one day to the next. Provincial regulations on tip-sharing, or lack thereof, also leave servers open to exploitation and more likely to put up with harassment and discrimination.
Instead of following Alberta’s lead by raising the minimum wage to $15 and eliminating the liquor-server rate, the B.C. Liberals have spent 16 years willfully ignoring the rights of some of the most vulnerable workers in our province.
Let’s be clear—paying workers less means more money for the owners, period. It’s not good for our economy or our communities. The hundreds of thousands of dollars funnelled to the B.C. Liberals by restaurant owners has only resulted in a loosely regulated restaurant and bar culture that can only benefit owners while Restaurants Canada leads the way opposing minimum wage increases.
The good news is that a provincial election is around the corner and all workers in the hospitality industry have an opportunity to vote for change and elect a government that is on their side. All workers can take comfort in the fact that B.C. is just one election away from bringing our workplace standards into the 21st century. Servers unite!
Gavin McGarrigle is the B.C. area director for Unifor. Unifor is the largest private-sector union in Canada and represents many hospitality workers throughout the province.