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How Low-Wage Work Hurts Women

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Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images.
In the fight for a living wage, women are on the front lines.

According to the National Women’s Law Center, women make up about two-thirds of the low-wage workforce. Women are twice as likely as men to be working jobs that pay less than $10.10 an hour, and industries that pay low wages, such as child care, restaurant work, and cleaning jobs, are more likely to be “pink-collar” fields dominated by women. In 2014, single women’s share of the low-wage workforce was, at 43%, almost double their share of the overall workforce. As the economy expands, these pink-collar industries will only get bigger.

Besides the ghettoization of women into low-wage fields, there is always the threat of sexual harassment. For many women performing low-wage work, dealing with inappropriate behavior becomes just part of the job. One restaurant worker shared with Refinery29 a story of consistent, casual sexual abuse performed by a customer. "There were numerous incidents where he'd 'accidentally' brush his hand against my boobs," she said. "One day, when I was alone, he came to the back and said, 'I'm leaving, I need a hug.'" Not knowing how to respond, she gave him his hug. When she pulled away, he shoved $30 into her hand and left. "It felt weirdly transactional," she said.

Another woman, asked to share stories about harassment, asked, "By a coworker or a [customer]?" She had experienced both.

It’s just structured that way— these forms of violence or exploitation or abuse, that you might not normally face in other positions or other industries.

Andrew Nguyen
A study released in late 2014 found that 80% of waitresses had experienced sexual harassment, and earlier this year a documentary and accompanying text story exposed the prevalence of sexual assault for women who work as cleaning women in offices. The threats are compounded by the fact that in many cases, women in low-wage work are immigrants who may have a language barrier or not feel empowered enough to report abuse.

“People should feel comfortable in coming forward to their employers,” said James Malios. He’s the managing partner for Amali, a restaurant in New York City that’s part of a partnership with women’s-rights organization Futures Without Violence. The partnership is part of a program called the Low Wage, High Risk, a pilot project that brings employers, advocates, and workers together to discuss ways to reduce sexual harassment and violence in low-wage industries. The project, which also has pilot sites in the agricultural and healthcare industries, aims to reduce harassment and violence in the workplace by developing policies and educating employers and workers together on how to respond to violence.

In New York City, the pilot project focuses on the hospitality industry and restaurant workers. In November, Futures Without Violence and their partners, anti-violence group Connect and the restaurant workers’ advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), gathered to discuss the pilot project. The panel brought together both activists and individuals with years of experience in the industry.

Andrew Nguyen, a coordinator for ROC New York, spent years as a waiter before getting involved on the organizing side. He told Refinery29 that restaurant workers, particularly tipped employees, are particularly vulnerable to harassment. “Whether or not you experience [harassment], you’re just more vulnerable. It’s just structured that way — these forms of violence or exploitation or abuse that you might not normally face in other positions or other industries.”

ROC fights to raise the tipped minimum wage, but tied up in the issue of low-wage work are always the contributing factors of race and gender. “Initially, our stance was that we just want to increase the tipped minimum wage….But then, soon we realized there was opportunity and room to explore the conversation further, and [we did a study on] sexual harassment in the industry, and we saw this correlation between tipping, sexual harassment, and gender,” Nguyen said, adding that about 67% of tipped workers are female. Although the rise of an anti-tipping movement has begun to erode some of the power structures that leave tipped workers vulnerable, the changes are still mostly at higher-end, more exclusive restaurants and don’t affect the majority of workers.

At the other end, making the effort to create policies against harassment and violence protects employers, too. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Malios said. He said that businesses may be hesitant to admit there is a problem due to concerns they will be perceived as complicit. “Whatever the level of apprehension that a restaurant may have, the thorough education of its managers and whatever minimal exposure they may have in that discussion…is certainly outweighed by the liability and impacts [of harassment].”

Roseanne Martino, the manager of the workers'-collective restaurant Colors NYC, put it more succinctly: “I wanted a better work environment, for myself and my employees.”
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