In the Pit

The Untold Stories of Toronto’s Dishwashers

Nov 14, 2019 · 10 min read

We recently presented In The Pit: The Untold Stories of Toronto’s Dishwashers, an extraordinary documentation of some of the lowest-wage workers in the restaurant industry. To kick off the photo exhibition, we hosted a panel discussion. You can take in excerpts from the conversation here (edited for clarity and length). In the Pit runs until November 28th, 2019, at Daniels Spectrum (585 Dundas St E) so don’t miss out on seeing the work before it’s gone.

Photo by Sandro Pehar

+ Sandro Pehar, photographer
+ Caden, dishwasher featured in the photo exhibit
+ Gilleen Pearce, Better Way Alliance
+ Pam Frache, Fight for $15 and Fairness

Moderated by Paul M. Taylor, Executive Director at FoodShare

Paul: Dishwashers are a part of our food system that often go unrecognized. When we think about the food system, weoften think about farmers. Often a white farmer in overalls with some straw behind them. We also push conversations around local food.

But we ignore the fact that we’re shipping folks in from other countries, thousands of miles away from their families, to work here in quite horrid conditions for our local food.

FoodShare’s commitment to food justice has us highlighting the plight of folks that perhaps struggle the most or are unseen or unrecognized in our food system and certainly in our food movement.

Paul: Sandro, did this project change or reinforce any of your previous thoughts about the world of dishwashing, food justice or our food system?

Sandro: Some of the work was very stark. Some of the places I went to you can’t see their photos because they said they didn’t want any photos taken. There’s a lot of work to be done.

I wanted to see what life was like. I learned that there’s some harrowing conditions for workers in Toronto, especially workers at the bottom of the rung in the restaurant industry.

Paul: Gilleen, can you tell us about why businesses are resistant to increasing minimum wage?

Gilleen: Businesses are operating from a place of fear and a comfort zone because it’s always been done that way. But some businesses are coming out of that mindset and realizing that if you pay people better, they’re more likely to stay in the job. That saves the business owner a lot of money. I’m thrilled that things are going in that direction. But it’s important to keep up the fight to improve wages. We have far too many people living in precarious situations.

Paul: Pam, can you tell us how you would define food justice and how that intersects with your advocacy work? What’s the connection there?

Pam: In terms of food justice, very often, we think of people who may not often have enough money to buy proper and nutritious food. Let’s look at the roots of this challenge. What are the causes behind not having enough income to purchase nutritious food?

Paul: Caden, tell us more about life as a dishwasher. How long is your typical shift and what’s the hardest part of the job?

Caden: The length of a shift varies depending on what day it is. An average day for me is between 10–11 hours of work.

I wake up, I go to work, spend most of my day there, I come home and go back to sleep. It’s a rinse and repeat cycle entirely.

Paul: We also have a couple of former dishwashers on stage. Is this experience similar to the experience you folks have had?

Sandro: Yes, very much so. I remember there were three shifts at the restaurant I worked at. The morning shift, the transition shift and the night shift. Often the transition shift dishwasher wasn’t there because it would cost the restaurant money to employ such a person. You have to do double the work and it’s exhausting.

Gilleen: It’s probably one of the hardest jobs in the world. It’s pretty tiring.

Paul: Sandro, how would you say this project has influenced your perspective on working conditions in restaurants? And even the right to food?

Sandro: At some point on this path I discovered the people who were dishwashers for 30 years. Think about that, 30 years.

I discovered people who were undocumented workers working in a dish-pit. And no one in the restaurant knew their name. You couldn’t even address the person by their name because no one knew their name. That’s a ridiculous working condition for any human being. It’s very alienating and there’s no reason it has to be that way at all.

This is far from ideal. It seems that a lot of those conditions are cultural and economic in nature.

Paul: Gilleen, what do you think it is that makes it especially challenging for restaurants to adopt decent work practices?

Gilleen: It’s interesting how Sandro just phrased it as a conversation between culture and economics. I think it’s that. Anyone who knows restaurant culture knows that it’s its own beast. But I’m not convinced it needs to be like that. On the economic side, restaurant profit margins are famously thin. It’s a hard job to own and run a restaurant. That being said, it’s all in the business planning. Even if your profit margin is small, you need to take into account a long term vision about how to treat staff right while also still making money.

Maybe we all need to think about how good working conditions cost money. Maybe we need to pay a little bit more for our food. Maybe we’re used to cheap food. But at what cost?

Paul: Pam, you’re advocating for a $15 minimum wage today. But in a city like Toronto, one that we know is very expensive, why not $16 or $17?

Pam: The demands for the campaign for $15 and Fairness were selected by the workers themselves. When our campaign first launched the goal the workers had chosen was $14. In the first 18 months of our campaign we won an increase from $10.25 to $11. When we were planning next steps we asked “do we want to stop at $11 or keep fighting? If so, what are we fighting for?” The workers said let’s go for $15.

Once you get your solidarity on what you thought was impossible yesterday becomes more possible tomorrow. That’s why the collective campaign makes things possible.

Big corporations have embedded a sub-poverty wage business model in their plans. Those are the people we have to contend with. We have to make government more afraid of us than they are of the big corporations.

Paul: We’ve talked about the importance of listening to workers. I want to ask, Caden, if you could change one thing about your job what would it be?

Caden: I wish we were listened to. It’s as simple as that. We don’t get listened to every day. I make hundreds of suggestions for reasonable changes to the workplace and they don’t happen.

I wish someone could hear my voice and actually do something about it.

Paul: Sandro, what did you learn from the people you photographed that you didn’t know or realize before?

Sandro: I think even if you think about it in your own lives, one of the most frustrating parts about working in any organization is access to agency. You’re not able to have a say in your living conditions at your workplace. It’s not really efficient because you’re the one doing the job. You know how to do it better than the person telling you how to do it. This is the thing I’ve been noticing with a lot of the people I talked to. Wage is one thing. But your living conditions while you’re at work are so important. We can’t ignore how people who continually work these jobs, every job, we’re victims of this structure. We’ve structured work as a top-down authoritarian dictation of what your life is going to be like. There’s very little respect for agency among the people who work and this is what I have been hearing across the board in this project and so many other areas of life.

Paul: Gilleen, let’s go back to public policy. Tell us what are some of the changes that you’re pushing for.

Gilleen: We support a higher minimum wage of $15/hr and paid sick days. Canada’s one of the only countries in which there are no mandatory paid sick days. It’s reasonable to have a few days of paid sick time and it’s also a really easy way for a good boss to show that you care for your employees and respect them as individuals.

The law needs to be modernized around scheduling practices. Cancelling shifts at the last second or suddenly changing someone’s job, that really shouldn’t be legal.

Don’t let them tell you that the labour law is fine because it isn’t and it needs to be changed.

Paul: Pam, what would you say are some of the essential requirements for decent working conditions?

Pam: If you’re working 6–7 hours a day then you ought not to be living in poverty. I think that’s one of the fundamentals. You need adequate hours, a wage, breaks, paid sick days. A voice at work is really important.

Having better access to unions and having a collective voice of work is going to be really important. In Ontario we don’t have something as basic as just cause protection, which is protection from an employer firing you for no reason. We need these to protect workers who are accessing their rights and fighting for more.

Paul: A lot of conversation right now is centred around the idea of a universal basic income. What are your thoughts, where does this fit?

Pam: One of the things we have to be really careful about is big multinational corporations using taxpayer dollars (basic income payments) to subsidize sub-poverty wage business models.

We want to make sure we’re not letting corporations off the hook to pay proper wages when we go about doing basic income.

Paul: As we think about basic income, let’s make sure it’s not an opportunity for employers to pay poor wages or erode the social services we depend on. Let’s jump back to Caden. Caden, what would you like people to know about dishwashers and the restaurant industry.

Caden: It’s a really gratifying job. Obviously I wake up every morning with my hand locked in a claw and my legs in agony but at the end of the day I leave with a smile on my face and I feel like I’ve completed something.

No matter how much I struggle every day or how much I’m struggling in general, every day I leave work with a smile on my face so I’m doing something right.

Paul: Sandro, can you please say some more beautiful things.

Sandro: All work is dignified. Everyone’s day-to-day when they’re working is important. All the work that they do provides them with a sense of satisfaction, completion, productivity and joy. They’ve made the world a little bit different.

There’s cultural stigma against people who work certain jobs, “dirty” jobs. But all work is equally valid. We live in such a complex society with such a high division of labour that we absolutely need all these people to work in a job. It’s a necessary condition for the way we enjoy things in this society. We really have to start thinking about how we interact with people who work. How we have conversations about work. How we prioritize people’s places in the workplace and break down some of the stigmas that have been imbued in us through movies, television and culture and top-down systems.

Paul: Pam, what action can people take to push for better working conditions and fair wages in restaurants?

Pam: The first thing is to make your voice heard. There’s lots of options: we have a petition you can sign. Talk to your friends, talk to your neighbours. When we launched the $14 minimum wage campaign, people laughed at us because minimum wage was frozen at $10.25. And here we are. We got it and we’re fighting for more. When we win one thing we have to keep fighting for more and build our movement until we get a much bigger piece of the pie. When we have a bigger piece of the pie, the pie is actually bigger for everyone.

Gilleen: Being a good customer at a restaurant is really important. Rather than looking at your server or your dishwasher or your chef as someone there to serve you, talk to people and ask them what their job is like. What are they paid like? Get a sense of whether or not you’re comfortable spending your money there. Do some research on where you do want to spend your money. There are restaurants out there providing decent work. Let’s try to build up the public support for decent work in business.

Paul: Caden can you tell us what you want people to take away from these photographs?

Caden: I didn’t come here to talk on a panel because I was asked. I came to give insight to you all. You are the ones that can make a change. If I want you to leave with one thing, it’s to just think about us.

Think about the dishwashers serving you clean plates. Keep us in your mind because we’re there too. You don’t see us but we’re there and we want change. We matter too.

In the Pit: The Untold Stories of Toronto’s Dishwashers included a mentorship opportunity for youth photographers from Shoot for Peace, a photography program for youth based in Regent Park, Toronto.

Two young photographers joined artist Sandro Pehar on location in restaurant kitchens, supported by Shoot for Peace program founder Yasin Osman.

Photo by Nicholas Williams

Shoot for Peace is a photography program started by artist Yasin Osman in Regent Park, Toronto. Since 2015, Yasin has met with local children and youth to explore the art of photography and its potential for self expression.

Thank you to our Lead Presenter The Daniels Corporation and to Toronto Artscape Foundation for making youth participation in this project possible.


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