Worker shortage? Lack of decent work? What is really bothering Canadian restaurants?

Bruce McAdams, University of Guelph and Rebecca gordon, University of Guelph

Canadian restaurant operators are struggling to find enough staff to run their operations. This job crisis has been highly publicized by the Canadian media as a “labor shortage”.

A recent survey by Restaurants Canada found that 80 percent of foodservice operators had difficulty hiring kitchen staff and 67 percent had trouble filling service, bar, and host positions.

Before the pandemic, Canada’s foodservice sector employed 1.2 million people, and according to Statistics Canada, you currently need to fill out 130,000 positions to reach pre-pandemic levels. That said, the Canadian restaurant industry has been struggling with hiring and retention issues for many years.

Should you refer to the chronic hiring struggles of Canadian restaurants as a labor shortage, or can it be more accurately described as a retention problem fueled by a lack of decent work? Does the use of the term labor shortage remove the responsibility for creating this shortage from restaurant operators and instead place it on Canadians seeking employment?

First job for many Canadians

A 2010 Canadian Restaurant and Food Service Association report found that 22 percent of Canadians worked in a restaurant as their first job, the highest in any industry. The study also found that 32 percent of Canadians have worked in the restaurant industry at some point.

These statistics show that millions of Canadians have become familiar with restaurant work and the industry has enjoyed a seemingly endless supply of labor for decades. So why is the restaurant industry burning so many people?

Our research on working conditions in restaurants shows that working in a restaurant is difficult and requires the sacrifice of work-life balance due to long hours and unpredictable schedules. While restaurant work can be rewarding and fun, it can also be poorly paid, stressful, and physically demanding, all of which can negatively impact mental health.

A waiter in protective gear collects the bill.
A waiter in protective gear collects the bill at a restaurant in Saint-Sauveur, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS / Ryan Remiorz

Many restaurant workers spend at least eight hours a day on their feet with no time for breaks or meals. Workers must also give up their social and family life by having to work late into the night, on weekends, and on holidays.

Many restaurant workers rarely know precisely when their shifts will end and tend to be placed on unpredictable split shifts or “on call” shifts to save labor costs.

Toxic work environment

The restaurant industry has also been rampant with sexual harassment, abuse and toxic work environments.

A study by Statistics Canada found that hospitality workers have the worst quality of work of any industry. This was largely due to low incomes, the inability to take time off, the absence of paid sick leave, the lack of training opportunities, and the lack of complementary medical and dental care.

This same study found that 67 percent of hospitality workers work in jobs with working conditions that are below decent work levels.

So what exactly is “decent work”? It is a concept established by the International Labor Organization and is linked to the United Nations Sustainable development goals. Decent work establishes universal working conditions that are fundamental to the well-being of workers.

These conditions are considered minimum labor standards that include living wages, hours of work that allow time off and rest, safe work environments, and access to medical care. Decent work is considered a human right, but based on working conditions in restaurants, it appears that the Canadian restaurant industry is struggling to provide it to all of its employees.

Waiters and waiters, all wearing masks, inside a restaurant.
Waiters and waiters wait for the lunch rush hour as customers sit on the patio of a Toronto restaurant. THE CANADIAN PRESS / Nathan Denette

Exodus of workers from industry

Through our research on restaurant work and through conversations with many restaurant employees across the country, we have learned that many are running away from the industry because work is routine. What’s more, they see no future in a job that will continue to hamper their well-being.

The pandemic gave workers time to find jobs in other industries that provide more stability and have regular work hours, vacation time, higher wages, and benefits.

These workers often felt neglected and that their employers did not believe they were worth investing in.

While it is true that there are good restaurant employers, the industry as a whole has failed to improve working conditions because, historically, there were always new people to fill the positions.

That begs the question: Could the continued reference to a labor shortage in the restaurant industry actually create a lack of urgency to address long-standing issues about quality of work?

A waitress wearing a mask serves customers.
A waitress serves customers at a restaurant in Carstairs, Alta. . THE CANADIAN PRESS / Jeff McIntosh

If restaurants want to operate with all staff in the post-pandemic future, they must invest in their employees because, after all, it is impossible to run a restaurant without people working there.

The restaurant industry has always invested money, time and resources to attract customers and increase revenue. It is high time restaurant operators regard their employees as internal customers and put as much effort into providing them with great experiences as they do with their external customers.

A good place for operators to start is by providing decent and dignified work for all that provides decent wages, benefits, and healthy working conditions.

Bruce McAdams, Associate Professor in Hotel, Food and Tourism Management, University of Guelph and Rebecca gordon, Graduate student, University of Guelph

This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the Original article.

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