By Daniel Tseghay
Last month, the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group (VIPIRG) collaborated with the Retail Action Network (RAN) to produce an extensive report, “Part-time, Poorly paid, Unprotected: Experiences of precarious work in Retail, Food Service, & Hospitality in Victoria, BC”. Rankandfile caught up with its author, Stefanie Hardman, VIPIRG’s research coordinator and RAN.
What brought you to this project?
I’m part of RAN. I spent many years working in retail and foodservice. I have an experiential sense of the challenges in those industries, with its devalued labour and power imbalances, which can be a very isolating experience. So the idea of connecting around those conditions and moving it moving it from an individual issue to a collective experience with an opportunity for collective action is really appealing to me.
The report points out that these workers are rarely unionized.
We’re seeing low and shrinking unionization rates throughout retail, foodservice and hospitality. The provincial average of unionized workers is 31.5 percent. Fourteen percent of retail workers are unionized and only 9 in accommodations and food services are unionized in 2013. This is coupled with the fact that the existing employment standards act in BC, which is meant to regulate the labour market and offer a basic level of protection, is failing workers in these industries. I think it really is important to mitigate those power relationships by having some form of support and protection that’s collective.
So how does the Retail Action Network engage in collective action?
We’re working on the solidarity network model that we’ve seen with the Seattle Solidarity Network, and other cities have had solidarity networks, that connect workers in different industries and workplaces. If a worker in one workplace has a complaint against their boss they can bring it to the network and be backed by other workers and activists in solidarity campaigns that demand wages from employers. We had a campaign against a particular cafe in Victoria that was paying a worker under a minimum wage, and had fired them without giving them appropriate notice or pay for that. We supported that worker in going to their employer with a letter of demand. This report is a part of drafting specific demands. Some of them are certainly changes we’re looking to see in the employment standards act, like higher wages and beyond that, we’d like to see more things included in the Act. And that will come from working within our network and seeing what we should demand. There are some ideas about potentially building a worker-led-and-operated cafe or some kind of workspace where we actually offer the opportunity to demonstrate good workplace practices and offer employment to people in good workplace conditions. We run a monthly social event called working class Wednesday. That’s an opportunity where, seeing that workers are in different workplaces, industries, with different hours, can community-build. We offer free food to retail, foodservice and hospitality workers. We have entertainment and discussion around these issues.
The report mentions that many workers, despite being precarious and disrespected, enjoy their work. These are skilled jobs. How do people navigate that double experience? What is it like to both enjoy and feel attached to your work but also feel disrespected?
I’ve looked to my co-workers. We can share our experiences of having low pay, having difficulty paying rent and covering living expenses. At the same time it is a shared experience where we are able to support each other and still enjoy certain aspects of our work.
We’re building the movement in three areas. One is building community. Second is winning victories, both within workplaces defying current employment standards. And third, winning victories with regards to the current employment standards systems, trying to navigate making claims. We have another organization that’s partnered with the Retail Action Network called Together Against Poverty Society and they have a program called ESLAP. They are the only organization offering support in navigating the employment standards claims system, giving us a chance to help workers there, but also take other actions in their workplace. Potentially unionizing certain workplaces if workers want to do that is an option.