The double-edged knife

The food industry’s labour shortage is partly self-inflicted

Aki Guomundsdóttir // Columnist

For years, there has been a well-publicized labour shortage in BC’s food and hospitality industry. Such a shortage would normally result in higher wages, but instead, wages have remained… competitive. And while “competitive wages” is a term often used in a positive light, what it really means is wages are low enough that the businesses are able to stay competitive with other businesses who pay equally low. Higher wages would drive menu prices up, making the restaurant uncompetitive. Or so the argument goes.

“Probationary” wages for over a month are also bullshit, but common. The reasoning is that there is so much labour turnover that restaurants punish new employees by simply assuming they’re temporary workers anyways, justifiably paid at a lower wage during “training,” which is very loosely defined.

This misguided and short-sighted economic logic inevitably leads to a major waste of a valuable resource: human capital. Because cooking is part art, part craft, part manual labour and mostly, because feeding people who have essentially forgotten how to feed themselves is one of the world’s most depended on jobs.

Doing it well requires years of learning, honing your craft, training your palate, mastering the chemistry of transforming ingredients and forever adapting to nature’s whims… Some even go through very expensive culinary programs to get an inter-provincial Red Seal certification, which will often guarantee them slightly higher wages, but not necessarily a better lifestyle.

The job is however treated as the most basic, non-skilled profession worthy of teenagers entering the work force, misfits and college dropouts, and as such, it attracts and manages to hold mostly those very people.

To make it worse, employers in the food industry will try – whether consciously or not – to get away with murder when it comes to labour laws, to mention a few: unpaid overtime, withheld meal breaks, split shifts scheduled beyond 12 hours and withheld vacation pay after employment is terminated are very common breaches. Which is why I always tell the less experienced, more naive cooks to take the time to read and highlight the BC Employment Standards Act.

The Act is really not that long or boring, and it will inform you about safeguards we should all be aware of, regardless of what industry we work in, but especially in an industry so notorious for breaching those rights. Some people do know their rights, and yet are afraid to stand up to employers for fear of appearing weak in a sickening macho culture.

With stagnant wages and notoriously damaging work standards, the industry is providing a wonderful incentive for those already in it to look elsewhere for employment, deepening the labour shortage.

Sadly, the alternative to wages is what’s widely known as “the salary trap”. Experienced cooks have become very cautious of owners or managers who offer them a monthly salary instead of hourly pay, since it almost always will lead to thousands of hours of unpaid overtime.
The trap is that it’s virtually impossible to get a sous chef or head chef promotion on an hourly pay basis.

For example, the average $40,000 salary for a chef working an average 60 hours a week amounts to a base $12/hour pay with over 4,000 hours of legal overtime a year. If the “unfortunate” labour shortage “forces” a head chef with that salary to work an average 65 hours a week the entire year, then his base wage would drop below the minimum wage, not to mention the health effects of overworking.

In the absence of HR departments or a union, most harassment, underpayment and abuse cases end up not being reported or talked about at all, giving perpetrators a sense of impunity, and perpetuating the aforementioned macho culture. Examples I’ve personally come across include a very explicit and disgustingly smug use of the n-word, a comment that gay people are mentally ill and an overweight co-worker being referred to as a “tub of lard”. All of this I heard in the kitchens of our presumably puritanical, all-inclusive Canadian wonderland.

Pursuing legal consequences for such employers is often too much of a hassle, too hard to prove, and little can be expected to come from it. The easier solution is to simply walk away from a toxic work environment and leave it behind, maybe warn others to stay away from it and help those stuck in it to find an alternative.

Solving this labour shortage will require much more than higher wages: it will require a recognition from everyone that those cooking for a living deserve payment and treatment commensurate with their contributions within a business and within society at large.

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