A Winnipeg waitress says she’s experiencing severe sexual harassment from male customers so often that she now expects it to happen every shift.

“On an average day, I’m just expecting to be harassed. I get called names. I get touched. I get yelled at.… I get weird patronizing names from older men,” she said.

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CBC is not naming her because she fears repercussions for speaking out.

That type of harassment is something she’s been experiencing since she started working at a family restaurant four years ago, she says.

Now, at age 20, she’s working at a different establishment and the harassment has escalated.

“I’ve been followed to my car.… I’ve had a few tables make jokes about drugging my water bottle,” she said.

Customers have been kicked out of the restaurant, and some even banned by management for abusing the staff. But the abuse continues.

The way that we raise young men and young boys is conducive to them harassing women later on.– Winnipeg waitress

The waitress says her co-workers are experiencing similar harassment, and some have sought therapy to cope with the abuse — with one even receiving a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

She’s not the only one who’s noticed an increase in mistreatment.

Earlier this month, a Regina pub owner took to Facebook to address the “toxic masculinity running rampant” and bring awareness to the treatment of female staff by men.

‘It’s about power,’ not sex, expert says

Adriana Berlingieri, a research associate with the University of Western Ontario-based Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children, says there are power imbalances at play for women working in the restaurant industry.

The precariousness of the work itself, tipping culture and an over-representation of women in front-of-house positions all contribute to the pervasiveness of sexual harassment.

“Often people think sexual harassment is about sex, and it’s not. It’s about power,” she said.

“It’s really about men having more social power than women because of gender inequality.”

There is also a long-held belief in the service industry that the customer is always right.

Berlingieri calls this “customer sovereignty,” and it creates a strange relationship between worker and customer —especially when tips are involved.

Speaking up about harassment can mean losing money, receiving a guest complaint, losing shifts or possibly termination.

But the owner of The Tallest Poppy says “sometimes, nobody’s right.”

“The customer is sometimes right. Sometimes the server is right,” said Talia Syrie, the owner of the restaurant on Winnipeg’s Sherbrook Street.

“It doesn’t matter — nobody’s keeping score.”

Talia Syrie, owner of the Tallest Poppy, has a zero-tolerance policy for harassment at her restaurant. (CBC)

But there is an imbalance between customers and workers in restaurants, she says.

“If you go into a business and you don’t like something about it, you can leave. But your staff have to be there until the end of their shift,” Syrie said.

“If they’re in a situation that’s making them uncomfortable or making them feel unsafe, they don’t have as many options as a customer does.”

She believes there is a sort of contract that is agreed upon when you enter a restaurant: a customer will receive service and in turn, the customer will treat the server with respect.

Anything else is unacceptable, she says.

“That idea that this person’s job is to be your punching bag, or your floor mat, or your repository for any kind of vitriolic garbage that you want to spew at them … it’s ridiculous,” Syrie said.

“I don’t know who teaches people this.”

The Winnipeg server who spoke to CBC believes it’s a societal issue.

“We socialize men to not care how women feel in these kinds of situations. The way that we raise young men and young boys is conducive to them harassing women later on.”

Onus placed on workers to act

Syrie enforces a zero-tolerance policy for harassment at The Tallest Poppy.

She’s taken workshops with Red Tent — a Winnipeg volunteer collective that offers consultation and training on creating safe spaces — and encourages others to do the same to make safer spaces for their employees.

She recognizes that as a small-business owner, she has the privilege of implementing policies easily — something that chain restaurants with bigger management structures can’t do as quickly.

Berlingieri says too often, the onus for taking action is placed on the workers who experience harassment. That includes the suggestion that they should simply quit.

“Why would they have to give up a job that they might like or that suits their lifestyle? And why should they have that loss?” she said.

The server who spoke to CBC compares asking her to quit her job to asking women not to walk alone at night, or not to wear revealing clothing.

“I’m not about to stop my life because some people don’t understand how to treat women or talk to people in the restaurant industry,” the server said.

“If I lived my life like that, I would stay home and never do anything. It’s not my problem that you don’t know how to act.”

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