Forced labour in restaurant kitchens is no joke

OPINION: Outrage over a jokey ad calling for slave labour is easy — but what about the real forced labour that goes into much of our food?
By Corey Mintz - Published on January 6, 2017
a blurry photo of busy restaurant staff at work
Every top-10 restaurant in the world is staffed with unpaid labourers, without whom these restaurants would not be able to reach their vaunted heights of food and service. (zorabcde/iStock)

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Sandor Dosman should have known.

When Dosman, who ran Veritas Café for the Graduate Students Association at Wilfrid Laurier University, wrote an unbelievably stupid ad post seeking employees, he should have known the trouble headed his way — and it was trouble he deserved.

Had a grown-up checked his ad copy, they might have warned him to correct his spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes:

“Pay is crap … unless your really good then its just ok.”

An editor probably would have taken a red pen to his swarm of jokey commentary:

“Food safety certificate would help your cause too (we try not to kill our customers).”

But without a doubt, any rational adult would have told him that under no circumstance should he begin the ad by making reference to slavery:

“I need a new slave (full time staff member)”.

Oy.

Slavery, as Dosman has likely learned since his employment was terminated, is generally considered to be about the most shameful, indelible stain on human society, its destructive effects continuing to shape our culture today, and not something reasonable people laugh at.

The students who found his ad offensive had every reason to. It is offensive. And ignorant. Students did not issue calls to take action because they were “too sensitive.” No one should have to put up with, or turn a blind eye to, racism at work or school.

But did Dosman’s punishment fit his crime? Might he have been disciplined instead of fired? There is no shortage of conservative columnists who would argue as much, while simultaneously skewering so-called liberal campus politics. They troll for stories of student “political correctness” the way a seafood restaurant waiter can be said to be fishing when they are merely scooping a lobster out of a tank full of lobsters. Let them be the voice of Dosman, who lacked the common sense to avoid diving head first into a pot of boiling water.

The situation does, however, bring up a distasteful hypocrisy. Dosman is being punished for joking about what others do with impunity.

If you’ve eaten shrimp from Thailand, you’ve supported actual slave labour.

If you’ve ever bought a vegetable grown in Ontario, you've participated in the exploitation of men and women from the Caribbean and Mexico. Brought here under the “temporary foreign worker program,” they spend six to seven days a week in the fields, without overtime, without a path to citizenship, shipped off like broken appliances if they get injured.

Chefs — who routinely take advantage of their cooks, paying them less than minimum wage, or nothing at all — are not only unpunished, they’re often lauded for it.

Every “top-10” restaurant in the world is staffed with unpaid labourers, without whom these restaurants would not be able to reach their vaunted heights of food and service. They are called stagiaires, ostensibly there to learn at the feet of masters. But in kitchens where one- to two-thirds of the cooks are working without pay, the business model of these restaurants is closer to antebellum plantation than fair market entrepreneurship.

You don’t have to exploit labour to win restaurant awards. But it helps.


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English chef Michael Roux Jr. was recently busted for paying cooks less than minimum wage at his London restaurant, Le Gavroche. A spokesperson told the Guardian that a 13 per cent service fee was split between employees, until Roux was forced to admit it was a lie, that the business keeps the money and counts it as revenue. A chef, celebrated or otherwise, can get away with almost any labour abuse so long as he’s not foolish enough to joke about slavery in a job ad or become the target of a newspaper’s investigation.

Le Gavroche is not an underground casino buffet, but a Michelin-starred restaurant that serves champagne butter sauce over lobster mousse with caviar. It didn’t lose any stars over this. Veritas, the café that Dosman was fired from, is a campus hangout that hosts a trivia night and serves beer in plastic cups.

Since the ad, the firing, and the inevitable backlash, the GSA has kept mostly quiet. Though they did issue a statement on December 20: “Rest assured that in any employment or service provision contract, we would not sever the relationship without there having been clear opportunities for training, education, and personal growth throughout the duration of the contract.” Following the cryptic hints at his job performance, Dosman told the Waterloo Region Record that his employers were happy with him and he’d had no written warnings before the incident. If that’s true, the GSA may have invited a libel suit on top of one for wrongful dismissal.

By the time you read this, Dosman will likely have retained a lawyer to contest the legality of his firing under the Employment Standards Act. He’ll probably get his job back, with a caveat to attend sensitivity training. And just like the Christmas Eve toast made by our racist Uncle Jerry, we’ll forget about this incident by the end of January.

But when it comes to slavery and food, let’s agree that if we are upset over words — enough so that we are moved to action — we must be at least as upset over deeds.

 Corey Mintz is a Toronto-based food writer.

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