BARS ARE A GREAT PLACE TO VISIT, BUT YOU WOULDN’T WANT TO WORK THERE. That’s the story all across Canada.
It's certain the work in bars and restaurants will be hard. Everything else about the work is uncertain: hours are erratic, pay unpredictable, working conditions stressful, management overbearing or inept, job security non-existent.
Despite all this many thousands take the work. For some bar work is a brief stop on their way to something better, but for others its a long-term career.
Either way each specific workplace is temporary, and workers often tell themselves they are briefly accepting the unacceptable. They have little interest in fighting with the boss for improvements they won't be around to benefit from, but change does slowly happen in the industry as a whole. Unionizing remains a hard sell.
‘You tend to drink harder and faster’
Cam* has been bartending for more than 10 years in the Toronto area. He says that there are big opportunities but also some serious problems in the industry.
Cam’s biggest grievance recently is working a lot of unpaid overtime for owners who were starting a new place. He felt like he was doing a lot of work for owners who were not behaving professionally and was upset that he wasn’t getting paid his overtime. He says this kind of thing is sadly too common in the industry: “Working conditions are horrible at some places because owners and managers treat their staff like it’s a revolving door. Most successful places have happy staff that was trained properly” he told CLI.
“I would say that the stresses of work definitely don’t help but also the fact that you now have all this money in your hands and it burns. You tend to drink harder and faster than you did before and even more so where a workplace allows you to do shots it gets out of hand”
He cites the recent suicide of TV star Anthony Bourdain as an example of how tough the stress of the industry can be. Bourdain had written extensively of his struggles with drugs and alcohol and how they were tied to his work in the restaurant industry. Bourdain seemed like he had it all. But his success and celebrity did not protect him from the stress and temptations of the food service industry.
Cam says, “The worst I think is how fast and hard people fall into drugs and alcohol because of the money that they make so quickly.”
Still he says that there is a lot he enjoys about his job: “The best is definitely the community that you get to meet of fellow bartenders, going to competitions and sitting at each other’s bars being creative and just having fun”
Gendered violence in the workplace
Summer R has been working in the industry since she was 12 years old. She is now 27 and works as a part time server/bartender. She says that when she was very young working in kitchens—not an uncommon start in the industry—she wasn’t taken seriously and had people “playing pranks” and sabotaging her tasks.
She said that “as I’ve gotten older it’s a lot more on the sexual harassment side, especially as a front-of-house worker. As well as the bar I work in being generally unsafe, no bouncer, illegal sales of alcohol, pressure to over-serve clients from the boss and things like that.“
She lives close to where she works. “I live in the neighbourhood and this has trickled over to having to essentially work while I’m off shift, whenever I see them out at the grocers for example. Since most of my income is reliant on tips I feel a strong obligation to be nice to them outside of work so I can keep up the appearance of being ‘friends’ at work so they continue to pay me.” She adds: “I’ve been followed home by customers “
She says many workers in the bar industry have issues around safety, including herself. “I’ve also been on shift alone and had to break up fights.” she told CLI.
“In one instance there was a domestic violence situation and I managed to get the guy out of the bar and locked the door behind him. He came back and kicked in the glass, injuring a customer before he ran off. The next time I went in to work the owner tried to shame and blame me saying it was my fault for locking the door.”
Workers take the power back—a bit
Summer ended up doing some worker organizing in the industry, and there’s been ups and downs. She and a coworker tried to get auto gratuities added into the bill at their workplace so they wouldn’t “feel so compelled to tolerate sexual harassment”and other mistreatment for tips.
Their efforts failed when one co-worker quit in frustration and others who were related to the owners refused to join in.
She says that her mother’s history as a union rep at a Levi’s factory contributed to her commitment to working with other workers to better conditions. Another factor was, “The gendered violence in the workplace, which definitely made me feel strongly about organizing with feminist principles in mind I guess”.
She says that workers naturally talk to each other about work and that this can be a first step towards informal organizing of workers in the industry. She also did more formal union organizing and says that in that case, “It’s great to have industry specific committees or groups where people can voice their grievances or just vent to other workers in the same situation and maybe as a result gain confidence to work toward addressing their issues in the workplace together and holding bosses accountable.”
She says that women and other marginalized groups often need spaces to discuss and organize around issues that affect them particularly.
Summer says that while organizing with other workers doesn’t always pay off in the short term, it helps to deal with working in an industry with conditions that few other people understand.
“You have to pay the rent and people don’t always have the luxury of waiting for the job they are happy in, and honestly these issues exist across the board in all sorts of workplaces, so building committees of workers to support each other and take a bit of the power back at work, even just as like an emotionally supportive group of people,is a step in the right direction I think.”
*not his real name
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