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COMMENTARY: Help wanted in hospitality industry

According to Statistics Canada, the number of unfilled hospitality jobs in Canada have almost doubled since before the pandemic. How can we reconcile the labour shortage lamented by the hospitality sector with high unemployment rates across the country? 

There is a scarcity of hospitality workers in Alberta and across Canada.

According to Statistics Canada, the number of unfilled hospitality jobs in Canada has almost doubled since before the pandemic. How can we reconcile the labour shortage lamented by the hospitality sector with high unemployment rates across the country? 

A recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) might have the answer. Their economic analysis shows that low wage jobs, such as those in the hospitality sector, have higher job vacancy rates and this effect has become more pronounced with the pandemic.

Finding themselves furloughed during the first, second and third waves of the pandemic, hospitality workers had time to take stock of their careers. Many decided that the low pay rate, long and unpredictable work hours, and lack of sick days and holiday pay were simply not worthwhile and have opted for a career change.

According to the CCPA study, many have taken jobs in the professional, scientific and technical services sectors. They have retrained, started businesses or focused on work that they previously did not have time to do.

Former hospitality workers are speaking out. Many service workers are women and racialized minorities. They endure sexism, racism and sexual harassment as common occurrences in their work day. 

In the United States, the restaurant industry has the highest rate of sexual harassment at five times all other industries. Paying workers less than a fair wage and expecting tipping by customers to top up earnings further entrenches sexualized and racialized exploitation in the industry. 

While many view tipping as a way of encouraging good service and hospitality, it forces a complex power play between workers, employers and customers. Workers have to tolerate mistreatment by customers to make sure they receive a tip to top up their below minimum wage, and employers can reward or punish employees by deciding which shifts they work and consequently how much tip they make.

Nearly half of service workers recently surveyed report symptoms of stress and burnout, which leads to employee turnover and feeds the vicious cycle of worsening work conditions for the remaining workers. Service workers are also having to endure verbal abuse and threats from hostile customers when enforcing public health rules around masking and proof of vaccination. 

Some employers are shining examples of best practices in the industry. We are hearing from some small and medium-sized restaurant owners that nearly all their staff came back to work for them after the furloughs forced by the waves of the pandemic. And they did so happily.

There are striking similarities in what these employers say about why. They talk about how much they valued their employees before the pandemic. They talk about having provided them with a living wage, extended benefits and predictable hours. These business owners now have a full workforce and a competitive advantage because they cared about supporting their employees before and during the pandemic.

If businesses in the hospitality industry want to survive and thrive after the pandemic, they will have to closely examine their business model. Businesses dependent on paying rock-bottom wages to undervalued employees and exploiting them for their physical and emotional labour may find that they are no longer viable.

Increasing wages, and passing on the expense to customers, is one option to improve the labour shortage and attract workers back to the industry. Another option is for individual businesses to cut back on hours and capacity so as not to burnout the staff that are currently willing to work in the business.

The provincial government can go a long way in helping out the hospitality industry by increasing minimum wage for service workers and eliminating the need for reliance on tips. This levels the playing field for all businesses and makes higher prices more acceptable to consumers. 

Businesses will still have to take into account that living wages vary across communities and some towns like Canmore have a living wage close to $31/hour for families of two working parents with two children.

No doubt many businesses will be looking to import foreign workers as an answer to their labour shortages. If there is no change to the pay, benefits or difficult work conditions in the industry this simply amounts to exchanging exploitation of Canadian workers for the exploitation of foreign workers. 

It is not sustainable or acceptable for an industry, or indeed a country, to build its economy on the planned and systematic mistreatment of immigrants. The Canadian government will have to provide foreign workers with protection of their labour rights, humane and family-centered immigration policies and a pathway to citizenship if they expect them to move to Canada to do work that Canadians, despite high unemployment rates, refuse to do.

If as a society, we don’t serve the needs of our workers, we may very well find that we will have to serve ourselves the next time we dine out.

Vamini Selvanandan is a family physician and public health practitioner in Alberta. Her commentaries appear in the Rocky Mountain Outlook on the third Thursday of each month. For more articles, visit www.engagedcitizen.ca.