A couple of weeks before my fifteenth birthday, I got a job in a restaurant working as a hostess. It was my first experience of paid work. During my training I learned how to greet and seat customers (or “guests” as I had been told many times to call them), polish and roll cutlery, take take-out orders, take reservations, and take a waiting list on a busy Friday night. Along with being taught the duties of a hostess I was also taught, informally, how the workplace operated. The rules for the way things just seemed to be appeared to me over time. Workers in the restaurant industry will be all too familiar with these workplace norms: working an eight-hour shift without a break, being on call without getting paid, waiting until Sunday night for management to post the schedule for the upcoming week, getting sent home from work because it’s “not busy enough” (without pay of course), and the far-from-transparent tip-pooling practices of management. At the age of fourteen, like millions of other workers, I was being socialized into the world of precarious work.
Precarious work is a term used to describe work involving low wages, little job security, little or no collective representation, and limited benefits, such as sick pay, a pension, and health insurance. These jobs are not precarious by chance. Rather, they are structured to be precarious. Precarious work is often found in sectors with little union representation. In the absence of a collective agreement regulating the terms and conditions of work, workers in these jobs often have to rely on employment standards legislation—laws that are supposed to provide workers with a floor of minimum labour rights by regulating aspects of work including minimum wage, hours of work, and vacation pay. The minimum standard of basic rights provided by the BC Employment Standards Act (BCESA) is too low and poorly enforced. For instance, under the BCESA the minimum wage is just $10.45/hr. and $9.20/hr. for those who serve liquor. Meanwhile, the living wage rate for greater Victoria is $20.05/hr.
This is part one of a four-part series that will discuss how work is constructed to be precarious. Using restaurant work as a case study, the series will explore how the work is organized to be precarious, and what impact this has on workers, especially when it comes to sexual harassment at work.