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Union 613 co-owner Ivan Gedz and his male staff wore revealing clothing to highlight the problems with sexist dress codes.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The prevalence of hypersexualized female dress codes has become a major issue in the restaurant world, where I work. On March 8, International Women's Day, the Ontario Human Rights Commission released a policy paper reminding restaurants to make sure that "dress codes don't reinforce sexist stereotypes," and calling out the unequal application of dress codes between men and women at some of Canada's larger chains. These dress codes have been a source of personal embarrassment for years, in part because of shame: As a young manager, I engaged in various dubious labour practices that I've since come to regret.

By the time I decided to open up my own shop, I knew things had to change. As the co-owner of Union 613 in Ottawa, I'm committed to doing things differently. I want both the food I serve and the workplace I create to be sustainable. So while I do not begrudge the desire for a dress code, it only makes sense that people engaged in sales feel respected. At my restaurant employees wear whatever makes them feel comfortable.

But I run one small independent spot, and women across the country are still often forced to wear skimpy clothing and uncomfortable shoes while serving food. So last week, myself and a few of the men I work with donned similar garb in hopes of highlighting the absurdity of the situation. The heels were painful and the groping by friends, even in jest, was uncomfortable to say the least.

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Servers might hope for a national umbrella organization to help turn their individual stories into a broader policy shift. They might think it was Restaurants Canada, a not-for-profit, membership-based organization with, its website claims, 30,000 members across the country.

But the organization has maintained an uncomfortable silence on the clothing issue. Last week, president Donna Dooher told the media that she doesn't believe that workplace sexual harassment is any worse in restaurants than in any other environment. And that was that.

Perhaps I can shed some light on this inadequate response.

Just after opening Union 613, I was invited to a meeting with the who's who of successful Ottawa restaurateurs. It was arranged by Restaurants Canada (formerly the Canadian Restaurants and Food Association), about which I knew very little at the time. I soon realized that it aimed to represent the interests of the entire food service industry from coast to coast, farm (or food processor) to table. The mandate seemed a little grand, but I was star struck about being asked to hang with local bigwigs.

I arrived and shook hands, all the while shitting bricks. What could I, the snotty upstart, offer to a room filled with 100-plus years of experience? The conversation ebbed and flowed, covering payroll tax hikes, employment insurance premiums and other government policy, all of which was pretty new to me, so I remained hushed. There really wasn't much discussion about food or service.

Those in attendance from Restaurants Canada offered a sympathetic ear and then began to explain what it is they do. They showed various pictures of top brass shaking hands with various federal and provincial ministers, everyone all smiles and chuckles. I soon realized that I was being sold something: representation on reputation.

The Restaurants Canada people went on to explain that our industry has an unfairly tarnished reputation, viewed both by those in power and society at large as flaunting labour practices and taking advantage of young and/or unskilled labour. This depiction was unjust, Restaurants Canada said, and staff was tasked to actively lobby government officials so that said officials realized that current restaurant practices were, by and large, A-okay.

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I sat there shaking with anger. At the time, I had more than 13 years of experience. I had been a line cook and a general manager, worked in places with five employees and shops with more than 40 workers, in Canada and abroad. I had been around long enough to see the good, the bad and the ugly – and to participate in it. I had aided owners who refused to pay overtime. I had been bullied, then turned around and been a bully.

I knew that all the stuff that Restaurants Canada was saying didn't happen (very much) does, in fact, happen, all the time.

I decided to offer my two cents. I suggested that the poor image of our industry might indeed have merit and that, other than speaking to government only about what restaurateurs need, it might make sense for Restaurant Canada to invest its money in what employees need, to educate owners about fair labour practices and so on.

The room fell silent and I realized that I was in way over my head. By suggesting that government lobbying was futile, I had called into question the very reason Restaurants Canada exists.

The organization's current silence over the hypersexualization of women in our profession is a perfect example of its unwillingness to engage in concrete approaches to repair the industry's tarnished image. Tits and ass, if I may be so crude, has long been an accepted – if not applauded – part of the industry at large. I would like to challenge any restaurateur to explain to me how even a half-inch heel is a requirement of service, and any dissenter to explain to me why a grocery store clerk (who spends as long on her feet as a server) should be mandated to wear stilettos.

Restaurants Canada remained quiet on the dress code subject last week, even though the Ontario Human Rights Commission policy paper was followed by various shocking news investigations – it took days to put a brief piece on its website highlighting dress code "best practices." As a lobbyist, this is perfect. As an organization that pretends to be more, it is pathetically insufficient. It's also not surprising, given that a poster for a Restaurants Canada event at the end of February showed a fully dressed (male) chef flexing his tattooed arm while a scantily clad (female) bartender crawled across a bar top.

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The very idea that one organization can represent everyone in the food service industry is a little like saying there should be one group representing all modes of transportation: We have as little in common with McDonald's as a bicycle does with an SUV. If members of Restaurants Canada want to shine up their tarnished image, I suggest engaging in tangible activity rather than lobbying government to maintain the status quo.

Cooks from corporate restaurants are shocked when I tell them that our employees have a joint benefits plan, for example. Independent restaurants work much harder at requiring sustainable meat and local produce, while chains that might better afford these ingredients rely on existing supply chains until pressured by consumers to change.

It looks as though it's up to us indie shops to lead the way in challenging the prevailing dogma, whether that is taking up the challenge of sustainable agriculture or of sustainability and ethics in the workplace.

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