‘Poisoned’ kitchen culture promotes sexual harassment

A male chef holding a kitchen knife. Stock photo by Getty Images

Restaurant kitchens operate like fraternities: rife with crudeness, hazings, discrimination, and all manner of sexual harassment. Throw in young workers, low wages, and a high-pressure environment and it’s a Darwinian cocktail where only the strong survive.

“There’s something called poisoned work environment,” insists Nicole Simes, an employment lawyer at Toronto-based MacLeod Law Firm. “When the entire atmosphere of the workplace is sexualized it creates an environment where people feel like they can’t do anything about it if something does happen.”

Recently a chef broke ranks when she filed a human rights complaint, alleging she was sexually harassed and assaulted by three male co-workers at a popular Toronto eatery.

While the details — she was subjected to lewd comments, had her breasts and crotch groped, and was sent pictures of her colleague’s genitalia — created a public outcry, the reaction has been more measured within kitchens.

“It’s a shame, but I don’t think it’s a shock,” confesses Marina Livingston, 27, an Ottawa-based chef, who has been working in kitchens since she was 16. “I see things everyday that would be considered sexual harassment. I’ve said things that I know would be considered sexual harassment.”

While she has a self-admitted high tolerance for sexual comments, Livingston draws the line at groping: “When I saw that it was physical touching and her job felt threatened, that’s pretty black and white to me.”

Livingston, who was born in California, experienced the sexist nature of kitchens as a teenager in her very first job when her male boss hit on her and made her feel uncomfortable enough that she left.

“I didn’t like it,” she says, but stopped short of filing any formal complaint. “It wasn’t overtly aggressive, but it was just uncomfortable. That was the worst I got and I feel very fortunate.”

The past 12 months have seen a number of high-profile sexual-harassment cases throughout all areas of Canadian society. Whether it involves celebrities like Jian Ghomeshi, politicians like former senator Don Meredith, the military, universities, the RCMP, law courts, hospitals, or kitchens, it’s clear more needs to be done to address rampant sexual harassment.

And this needs to start at the top, says Simes.

“It does make a difference where owners and management and HR are clear with the staff on what is appropriate and not appropriate right from the beginning,” concedes Simes, adding failure to do so can open the door to a large lawsuit.

Simes adds that in the recent “horrific case” of O.P.T. v. Presteve Foods Ltd., the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal awarded the complainant $150,000 for what it felt amounted to “unprecedented” sexual harassment. The victim — a Mexican migrant worker — alleged Presteve’s owner, Jose Pratas, forced her to regularly perform sex acts on him under threat of deportation.

I anticipate the awards for serious conduct are going to go up from here on,” says Simes, adding the previous high-water mark was around $35,000. “There is a trend where the tribunal is taking these sorts of cases more seriously and they are more willing to award significant amounts when there has been a serious violation.”

The tribunal route is more “complainant-friendly,” according to Taryn Mackie, a Vancouver labour lawyer with Bull Housser LLP.

Victims generally have two options:

  • File a lawsuit and go to court. This requires the complainant to quit their job and file a constructive-dismissal charge based on the fact the employer did not provide a safe workplace, free from discrimination. Says Mackie: “When you have a work environment that is in breach of those, then it opens the door to an employee to say you have fundamentally changed my job because you’re not providing me with a work environment that I’m entitled to.”
  • File a human rights complaint. This procedure is similar to filing any work-related complaints, such as pay, injuries, or benefits, but the employee can do so while still at work. There is no judge, but rather an arbitrator, or panel, that can award damages that aren’t limited by severance calculations. Amounts are based on the Human Rights Code tenet of “injuries to dignity, feelings, and self-respect” and can include future wage loss. “They look at remedies from a make-whole perspective and so they try to put the complainant in the position they would have been in absent the discriminatory conduct happening,” says Mackie.

Livingston, who now manages other cooks, says she has seen attitudes changing in kitchens with more women working and more employees being hired from culinary schools that often offer workplace-behaviour courses. Despite that, she remains conflicted about the culture, hesitant to declare it irreparably broken.

“I actually do like the hazing; I think it’s fun. I’ve gotten it both sexual and non-sexual,” confesses Livingston, who nevertheless wishes her workplace was more professional, and less sexist. “To some extent I’m a part of what I’m saying is not so great.”
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