An Alberta cabinet minister snubbed a group of restaurateurs on Tuesday, saying their new campaign was “anti-worker” for criticizing the government’s minimum wage increases.
Restaurants Canada, an organization representing 30,000 restaurateurs across the country, launched a campaign Tuesday at an Edmonton hotel, warning that NDP policies were making it harder for restaurateurs to survive the province’s economic downturn. In roughly four years, the province has lost 10,000 jobs in the restaurant sector amid a lagging economy and government labour reforms, Restaurants Canada said.
“It feels as if we’ve had somebody’s foot on our throat,” Patrick Saurette, an Edmonton restaurateur who also chairs the Restaurants Canada board, said after Tuesday’s event.
Restaurants Canada invited the three contenders in Alberta’s forthcoming provincial election to its event. Both United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney and Alberta Party leader Stephen Mandel spoke at the event. NDP Labour Minister Christina Gray was scheduled to speak too, but cancelled the day before. Restaurants Canada said organizers were told the minister had to attend to a pressing matter.
But at an afternoon press conference, Gray said she deliberately skipped the morning event after learning “Restaurants Canada was using today’s event to launch what I would consider … an anti-worker campaign.
“I felt attending their event might show some sort of endorsement,” Gray told reporters. “And I reject the launch of this third-party campaign to roll back workers’ rights.”
Mark von Schellwitz, Restaurants Canada’s vice-president of Western Canada, denied his group’s Restaurant Realities campaign was anti-worker.
“It’s unfortunate that she thinks that way,” he said. “The bottom line is, we want to see more Albertans employed. There’s 10,000 fewer people (working) and for them, they have no wage.
“We certainly want to see the bleeding stop.”
In its pre-election policy recommendations, released Tuesday, Restaurants Canada said the NDP had added to the already substantial burden caused by the province’s economic woes by forcing restaurants to contend with wage hikes (Alberta’s most recent increase put minimum wage at $15 per hour in October).
It’s unfortunate she thinks that way. The bottom line is, we want to see more Albertans employed. There’s 10,000 fewer people (working)…
Mark von Schellwitz, vice-president Western Canada, Restaurants Canada
The average restaurant in the province now employs roughly 11.7 staff, down from 13 in 2015, Restaurants Canada reported. It said the industry employs 159,600 in Alberta as of December 2018 — down from a peak of 159,000 in February 2015. In an industry with notoriously slim margins — the average is five per cent in the province — restaurants “are struggling to survive,” the group said.
“It’s not like I’m driving away in my BMW with buckets full of cash,” said board chair Saurette, who owns the Edmonton bistro The Marc. “My business is down by 14 per cent. My costs are up exorbitantly.
“I’m actually living here,” he said. “People that I’ve worked with since I was 14 years old (are) coming to me saying, ‘I don’t know if I can make it.’”
Among its recommendations, Restaurant Canada is calling for a wage hike as well as the ability to pay youth and “liquor servers” less than the minimum. It also wants the government to scrap a new policy that allows staff to earn compensation on statutory holidays, regardless of whether they work.
“We take the recommendation of the restaurant employers very seriously,” Jason Kenney said at the event.
In an interview, Gray criticized Kenney, whose attendance she said counted as an endorsement of Restaurants Canada. Gray pointed to her government’s small business tax cuts and record receipt totals at restaurants around the province.
Restaurants Canada, however, said the receipts are high because restaurateurs have had to pass higher operational costs on to customers.
“Servers,” Gray said, “should be able to afford to put dinner on their own table at home.”
“I have met with Restaurants Canada and I would meet with them again…. But today was a campaign launch premised on policies that I deeply disagree with.
— With files from Clare Clancy, Postmedia News.