Dress codes requiring restaurant servers to wear high heels will soon be a thing of the past, according to B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver. But labour activists, along with Weaver himself, say this is only the beginning of what’s needed to protect the province’s restaurant workers from poor working conditions and harassment.
Weaver, MLA for the riding of Oak Bay-Gordon Head, introduced a bill in the B.C. legislature on March 8 that would prevent employers from setting differing footwear requirements depending on an employee’s gender, gender expression or gender identity.
He cited a series of articles on The Tyee as the inspiration for the bill. On March 12, Premier Christy Clark announced her support for Weaver’s bill, saying the government will move to prevent employers from being able to force servers to wear heels.
Robyn Durling, communications director for the B.C. Human Rights clinic, supports the move to outlaw high heel dress codes. He said it’s not unusual for the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal to receive several complaints each year about discriminatory dress codes. Banning high heel requirements for restaurant servers, said Durling, is a good idea from a human rights perspective.
“It seems to be, on the surface, gender discrimination. On a second level, potentially it could also be damaging to women’s feet or exacerbate any foot problems that they may have. Forcing them to wear it and not taking that into account or accommodating that issue could also be a human rights issue,” he said.
Women should be allowed to wear clothing to work in which they feel comfortable, he said.
“It should not be up to the employer to put them in a position where they have to wear clothing that is either sexist, by making them look sexier, potentially leading to harassment complaints, or to put them in a position where they’re uncomfortable and are injuring themselves as a result of the way that they’re asked to look,” he said.
Kaitlyn Matulewicz says that the high heel dress code ban is an important first step. Matulewicz is an organizer with the Retail Action Network, a group of labour activists and workers in Victoria who aim to improve working conditions in restaurants and retail outlets.
Her recent PhD research at the University of Victoria looked at the ways in which the lower liquor server minimum wage in British Columbia affects the working conditions of female servers.
Liquor servers in B.C. currently earn $1.25 lower than the current minimum wage of $10.85 per hour. This increases servers’ reliance on tips and, Matulewicz found, makes them more likely to tolerate harassment from customers as a result.
The issue of poor working conditions in restaurants, she said, is systemic.
“Just ending high heel dress codes alone won’t go far enough to address the systemic nature of a sexist work environment rampant with sexual harassment and discrimination,” she said.
Other changes also need to be made, said Matulewicz.
“For instance, eliminating the liquor server’s minimum wage or even bringing in some protective legislation that makes sure that employers can’t take workers tips,” she said.
Matulewicz said improved enforcement of the Employment Standards Act is also needed. This would help address the precariousness of the work environment in restaurants, she said, which can lead to situations where sexism and discrimination are tolerated.
‘$9.60 an hour is absurd’
Andrew Weaver agrees that the problems with restaurant working conditions run deeper than high heel dress codes. The shoes, however, were an issue that he knew could be easily and quickly addressed.
“The high heels issue jumped out at me because that is something that could be dealt with really easily,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that in 2017 this was a thing. I honestly couldn’t.”
He said he has received overwhelming support for the bill.
“It’s a no-brainer. We debated puppies in the legislature. There was this bill to protect puppies. And even in that bill to protect puppies there was concern from members of the general public about how it was being implemented,” he said.
There’s been no such hesitancy this time. “When high heels beats puppies, you know you’re onto something.”
Weaver said that other discriminatory dress code requirements – such as short skirts and low necklines – are also unacceptable.
“I find that objectionable too, but my approach is to move forward bit by bit,” he said, “and high heels are a clear health and safety issue.”
He would like to see other issues that affect restaurant working conditions addressed as well, including the lower liquor server wage. Restaurant workers, he says, should earn the same wage as other B.C. workers.
“There’s no question,” he said. “We should have a minimum wage, not multiple minimum wages. $9.60 an hour is absurd. It should be the same.”
Weaver agrees that cuts to the Employment Standards Branch budget since 2001 have also had an impact on working conditions in the province. The problems with the ESB, he says, are with enforcement. Fewer officers and smaller budgets make it harder for workers to get their complaint dealt with.
“And it’s not only the ESB that’s been cut. It’s that government has decided that they don’t really need to be in the business of regulation,” he said, citing cuts to environmental compliance and enforcement, natural resource stewardship, and the WCB as examples.
Weaver says recent legislation in Ontario that protects restaurant servers’ tips is a good example of the kind of protection the B.C. government should be offering the workers in this province.
“These are the kinds of things that we need to do. And we don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “We just have to look for best practices out there.”
The BC Law Institute is currently reviewing the Employment Standards Act, with the aim of entering the consultation phase by the middle of this year. Weaver believes that the government should take any recommendations that come from that project seriously.
“The role of government is not to protect the employer, it’s to protect the people. And the reason why we have an Employment Standards Act is to ensure that there is protection in place for people who work in British Columbia,” he said.
Weaver also cited the BC Green Party’s support of a basic income program as a way to improve employment standards. This type of program would give workers the ability to leave bad jobs without jeopardizing their survival.
In an earlier Tyee story, MLA Shane Simpson, the BC NDP opposition spokesperson for Economic Development, Jobs, Labour and Skills, said that his party sees no justification for the liquor server minimum wage, and would increase the general minimum wage to $15.
An NDP provincial government, Simpson said, would explore the possibility of a regulatory regime for tips and gratuities.
B.C.’s Minister of Labour Shirley Bond responded to The Tyee via email expressing support for the intention of Weaver’s footwear bill.
“Requiring women to wear high heels in the workplace is unacceptable and we intend to take action to fix that,” she said.
Work is underway, said Bond, to find the most effective way to address the issue. She said that workers who have a complaint against their employer can call the Employment Standards Branch for information and assistance. The branch serves as a neutral party, she said, looking at every complaint received and ensuring due process.
Bond also said that British Columbia is the only jurisdiction with mandatory penalties imposed for violations of the Employment Standards Act. She noted that the budget and staff levels at the Employment Standards Branch have been stable at $7.9 million since 2013.
News of Weaver’s bill has received international media attention over the past few days, with outlets in the U.K. and Brazil reporting on it. Weaver said that he has met with Bond this week and is confident that dress codes requiring high heel shoes are on their way out.
“It’s not going to be done as a bill. Minister Bond said what they’re going to do is bring it into the Employment Standards Act,” he said.
“It will probably happen this week.”