Protecting vulnerable workers from discrimination

To coincide with International Women’s Day in March 2017, the OHRC released a new report that outlines commitments made by many of Ontario’s largest and most well-known restaurant chains to eliminate discriminatory dress codes for restaurant staff. Not on the Menu: Inquiry report on sexual and gender-based dress codes in Ontario’s restaurants outlines findings from an inquiry into dress codes at certain restaurants operating across Ontario.

People who work in restaurants can be vulnerable to sexual harassment and discrimination because of the precarious nature of their work. That’s why we decided to take the extra step of reaching out to restaurants because we heard that workers often didn’t feel empowered to raise their concerns due to fear of reprisal.

Following the release in March 2016 of the OHRC’s Policy position on sexualized and gender-based dress codes, the OHRC wrote to the companies, informed them about dress code concerns and obligations under the Human Rights Code, and asked them to commit to taking steps to comply.

We chose “industry leaders” to have the widest possible impact – 14 companies representing more than 25 multi-location brands and hundreds of restaurants. Some were Toronto- or Ontario-specific, while others were larger, nationwide companies.

While the inquiry focused on specific companies, all Ontario restaurants – and other employers – have a legal obligation to make sure their dress requirements comply with the Code.

“Excellent customer service doesn’t have a cup size. I hope women will call us for legal help if cleavage is deemed an essential skill in their workplace.”

Kathy Laird, former Executive Director, Human Rights Legal Support Centre

Some of the restaurants involved:

  • Cactus Club Café
  • Bier Markt
  • East Side Mario’s
  • Kelsey’s
  • Milestones
  • Montana’s
  • Fionn MacCool’s
  • Earl’s Kitchen and Bar
  • Firkin Group of Pubs
  • Duke Pubs
  • Baton Rouge
  • JOEY Restaurants
  • The Keg Steakhouse and Bar
  • Moxie's Restaurants
  • Shoeless Joe’s Sports Grill
  • Canyon Creek
  • Jack Astor’s
  • REDS
  • Gabby’s Restaurant Group.

Seeing results

The response from the companies was encouraging with all of them either developing new policies or amending existing ones. In general, companies expressed support for addressing dress codes, sexual harassment and other human rights concerns in their workplaces.

The OHRC thanks Restaurants Canada (@RestaurantsCA) and the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Association (@ORHMA) for their cooperation in sharing OHRC resources with members, and helping to identify and address concerns.

The inquiry: what we heard...

“In a competitive market, the value should be based on the customer experience; the food, the drink, the ambience and the quality of service, not sexualizing the workers.”

– Hospitality sector expert

“The employer is responsible for the well-being of the employees. A smart employer knows that they have lower turnover if they treat employees well. They save time and money by not having to advertise and train people as often. They get better work – happy employees provide better service, and are more reliable – if they treat employees with respect. It makes business sense.”

– Hospitality sector expert

“There is a whole sexist culture in the industry, including and going beyond dress codes: the ‘casting couch,’ ageism, sexism… There is lots of harassment of servers by cooks in the back of house. Male servers also get harassment, though females are predominantly servers, and back of house are predominantly males.”

- Hospitality sector expert

Men think it’s ok in these restaurants to hit on the girls working and make sexual comments, and I do think it is a direct result in terms of how we are presented to them [by the dress code requirements].

“Whether we are talking about migrant workers, people in minimum wage service jobs, or people on rotating contracts, which is becoming the new normal, people are often afraid to assert their rights or call out discrimination. Many think that coping with discrimination or harassment on the job is better than having no job at all.”

– OHRC Chief Commissioner Mandhane, speech at Vibrant Communities Canada, Cities Reducing Poverty: When Business is Engaged