The Ontario government has committed to spending $1.7 million over the next three years to train 25,000 frontline hospitality workers on how to identify and intervene in the face of sexual harassment or violence on the job.
The seminars will teach servers and bartenders how to intervene in a “safe way” to stop incidents of violence involving both customers and their colleagues.
The commitment, which is part of the province’s “It’s Never Okay” campaign to end sexual violence, comes in the wake of several high-profile sexual harassment claims in the province, including that of Toronto pastry chef Kate Burnham.
Burnham lodged a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal in summer 2015, alleging that she was subjected to persistent unwanted sexual comments and touching in the kitchen of Toronto eatery Weslodge. While the complaint was ultimately settled last September, Burnham’s story and the publicity it garnered prompted calls for addressing pervasive sexual harassment in the restaurant industry.
Other recent high-profile cases have highlighted the sexualization of hospitality staff. In late 2015, Cara Operations came under fire for its new dress code, which required female servers at Bier Markt locations to wear skimpy dresses and high heeled shoes on the job. Cara ultimately backed down on the new gender-specific dress code after receiving more than forty complaints from staff and a host of bad press.
The need to train hospitality workers about sexual violence intervention is two-fold. First, the consumption of alcohol makes bars and restaurants sexual harassment hotspots, meaning these workers are well-placed to intervene and take action to stop inappropriate behaviour targeting customers.
Second, restaurant workers themselves are more likely to be subjected to sexual harassment. Many workers in the industry are part-time, young and female. The precariousness of their positions, and the fact that they rely on tips for the majority of their income, makes them both more likely to be subjected to sexual harassment or violence and less likely to object to or report it.
According to Ontario’s human rights laws, employers have duties to both prevent and adequately respond to instances of sexual harassment involving employees. The training proposed for hospitality workers should not be interpreted as waiving an employer’s duty to intervene and put a stop to the harassment of workers on the job, be it from customers or between colleagues.
Kristen Pennington is an employment and human rights lawyer at Grosman, Grosman & Gale LLP in Toronto. She is passionate about the advancement of women and making workplaces safer and free from discrimination. Follow her on Twitter @klpennington or at