Negede Kaffa, a first-generation Canadian of Ethiopian descent, was 15 years old when she started working as a cashier at a fast-food restaurant in Alberta, between the cities of Spruce Grove and Edmonton.
For two and a half years, the teenager says she tolerated covert racism and sexual harassment from both customers and co-workers with little or no support from management.
When the pandemic hit, the added stress of being isolated from her friends while working on the front-lines became too much to bear.
She quit in March.
“There are better jobs during the pandemic than fast food,” she said. “If you’re very desperate, I wouldn’t even recommend a job like that.”
Kaffa is not alone.
Young racialized women working low-paying jobs as front-line workers during the pandemic are experiencing declining mental health while incidents of racial and sexual harassment are on the rise. And they are getting little to no support from employers or the government.
While Statistics Canada does not collect statistics specific to this select group of workers, a compilation of data regarding front-line workers and the mental health of young women and minorities, reveals the growing problem.
Of the 317,400 Canadians working in 2020 as food counter attendants, kitchen helpers and related support occupations, 100,600 (or 31.5 per cent) were females between 15 and 24 years old.
During that same time, statistics show that young people were undergoing a mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. By July 2020, youth aged 15-24 reported a 20 percentage-point decline in their mental health since the pandemic began.
Combine these findings with data that shows that minorities, particularly young women, reported an increase in racial harassment and racial violence during the pandemic, the problems these front-line workers are facing is clear. This includes the subtle, passive racist remarks — often called microaggressions — that seem to be easy to miss or dismiss but are just as hurtful to endure as blatant racism.
The pandemic has exposed existing cracks in our society and the ramifications for these young people are only going to get worse if the laws in place to protect workers are not enforced and if existing legislation is not reviewed to ensure racialized workers can access these rights free of barriers, critics say.
Young racialized female front-line workers are not in a position to deal with the stresses they are under whether because of their age, lack of power or new status in the country, said Stephanie Premji, assistant professor in the School of Labour Studies and the department of health, aging and society at McMaster University.
The verbal attacks they are enduring, whether subtle or direct, can lead to a number of health problems — chronic stress, anxiety and depression — adds Premji, who studies employment issues including how precarious employment or racialization can affect worker’s health.
Marissa (not her real name), a 21-year-old international student at Simon Fraser University, quit her job as a front-line worker during the pandemic after experiencing a hostile work environment and is now reluctant to apply for jobs in the fast-food industry.
The third-year psychology student who emigrated from India, got her first job in Canada as a barista at a Starbucks in Vancouver. She worked there for five months before quit in January after enduring what she calls intimidation tactics. She said she was taunted by coworkers, not listened to by coworkers, and, when she complained, management didn’t take action.
To Marissa it seemed her aggressors felt almost entitled to pick on her.
Marissa said when the misunderstandings with a co-worker escalated into verbal attacks, she tried on different occasions to talk to management about the problems but was shrugged off or not believed.
She said she became so frustrated by her situation that at one point she told her shift supervisor, “I’d do whatever you’d want me to do.” Her shift supervisor responded by saying, “Good. Anytime I ask you for anything, that’s the answer I’d like to hear,” Marissa recalled.
Starbucks Coffee Co. strongly disagrees with the allegations.
“Starbucks has a long history of providing an inclusive, supportive and safe work environment for everyone, and we strongly encourage all partners to report a concern that goes against these values, using any of the multiple channels available, both directly and anonymously,” said Leanna Rizzi, communications manager for Starbucks in an email. “We are disappointed to learn that this partner believes she was treated unfairly. Our employment policies absolutely prohibit discrimination or harassment of any kind, and we are committed to treating each other with respect and dignity.”
Young workers feel powerless under the current work environment and don’t know what to do when they’re verbally attacked or where to turn for help to deal with it, said Anna Liu, an executive board member of the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance (ACLA). They worry they will get in trouble and lose their job for talking to human resources departments. If they are in a union, they often don’t know how to approach them, Liu said.
Marissa said she felt unheard and disrespected.
“I would say I was a little put down by it because, as an international student, I had come to Canada with a lot of expectations,” she said. “I didn’t think I would face being harassed or taunted at such a reputable company.”
As a result, Marissa has given up on working and relies on scholarships and loans to pay for her studies, housing and necessities.
Kaffa, who is now 18, says she felt the strain of being young and powerless from the get-go.
Six months into her fast-food job, she said her boss took her aside and told her “she doesn’t work like she cares” and asked her to “act like she’s worth $15 an hour.”
Kaffa was offended by this remark. She said she often picked up extra hours, went to work whenever her manager called her in, no matter how short the notice, and always arrived 10 to 15 minutes early.
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“I would work sometimes 70 hours a week during the pandemic.” Kaffa said. “I worked hard and I’ve spent so much time there.”
Still she was reluctant to say anything.
But that wasn’t the only workplace issue she had. Customers would make racially insensitive comments to her, not follow COVID guidelines, or would swear at her constantly, making a bleak situation even more difficult, she told the Star. When Kaffa and her coworkers complained to management about a male co-worker’s continual sexual advances and racial comments, they say management dismissed the behaviour as a personality trait.
When the COVID lockdown went into effect, the abuse only got worse, she said.
The fast-food company Kaffa worked for did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“Racism is a health and safety issue and it is incumbent for employers and governments to address this,” says Chris Ramsaroop, co-founder of the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance and organizer for Justice for Migrant Workers.
The real problem is that the onus is on the workers to report these issues, but the fear of being reprimanded prevents them from speaking out, said Ramsaroop.
He says provincial governments, which are responsible for labour laws, need to hold employers accountable and ensure the laws and policies are being enforced.
When it comes to workplace chronic stress resulting from harassment, workers can receive compensation in many jurisdictions, but claim refusal rates are very high, said Premji.
There is a need to make sure people who experience mental health problems due to being harassed at work are compensated in the same way that those who experience physical work injuries are compensated, Premji added.
Cheryl (not her real name), an 18-year-old first-year psychology student at MacEwan University in Edmonton, has also felt her mental health deteriorate while working a front-line job during the pandemic.
Like Kaffa, she started a job at a fast-food restaurant when she was 15 and over the years has endured racial slurs from customers at the Arby’s Restaurant where the aspiring jazz and R&B singer works as a cashier.
Cheryl is of mixed heritage: Her dad is of Irish and French ancestry. On her mother’s side, the family comes from Jamaica, Trinidad and India.
She’s been called the N-word by customers and subjected to other abusive language. She said the racial harassment has only increased during the pandemic and said the loneliness of the pandemic has made dealing with it harder to handle.
Her experiences with restaurant management have been positive, on the whole, she said. Whenever customers hurl sexist comments or racial slurs at her, her boss takes the time to acknowledge her feelings and ask how she’s doing.
An Arby’s spokesperson said the brand’s values are rooted in diversity and inclusion, so if any guests are spewing harmful rhetoric to team members, management would fully support the employee. The company gives de-escalation training and diversity and inclusion training to all employees. The spokesperson said the company has a hotline employees can call if they have any problems and they have corporate members above the restaurant level who are responsible for a specific region checking in on their teams frequently.
“We have zero tolerance for the mistreatment of any employees or any discriminatory speech, so if any of our employees are partaking in that whether to another employee or a guest, they’ll likely be terminated,” the Arby’s spokesperson said.
Cheryl said she has slowly gotten used to being disrespected by customers and that it got easier to withstand these comments over the years.
“I’m kinda immune to that treatment, but I barely react because it’s just something that’s been frequent,” Cheryl said.
Premji is appalled that it is socially acceptable for vulnerable young women to have to endure such treatment.
“I think it’s really unfortunate that it’s up to individuals to find ways to cope with the harassment, that there’s such an individualized discourse around these issues,” Premji said.
The pandemic has exposed this behaviour and it’s time to act, said Premji. Better wages, better employment standards and maintaining income supports for racialized women in the labour market can all help their situation.
Addressing the precarity of these jobs is really important, Premji said. When workers are not in a precarious situation where their employment is not at risk, their voices are not suppressed and then they are more likely to speak out about health and safety issues, she said.
Liu says the provincial governments need to do more to educate workers about their rights and protections against workplace violence and harassment.
Liu points to the Ontario Health & Safety Act where there are supposed to be protections against workplace violence and harassment. Employers have a responsibility to maintain a healthy and safe working environment, but compliance on the issue is not rigorously tracked so it is hard to monitor the legislation’s effectiveness in actually protecting workers, she said. Liu notes that this legislation does not apply to small workplaces with five or fewer employees.
“To make systematic change, however, we need to review all legislation pertaining to workers’ rights from an equity and anti-oppression lens to ensure racialized workers and other marginalized groups can access these rights free of barriers,” Liu said.
“When we’re thinking about struggles of live-in caregivers or undocumented migrant women, when we’re organizing to stand in solidarity with vulnerable racialized women, we’re demanding changes that will not only benefit precarious workers, but all workers in our society,” Ramsaroop said.
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