Can restaurants discriminate when hiring staff?

restaurant-staff

Whenever I dine at one of the many fine Thai restaurants in Leeds I am always struck by the fact that the staff are all Thai people. Why is this? How does a restaurant get away with this? Surely it is discrimination to exclude all other races?

My assumption was that they got round the legislation by insisting on language skills. If you run a Thai restaurant, all you need to do is specify applicants must speak Thai, and without saying anything about race you have filtered almost everyone else out. I’ll come back to this point later.

Economist Steven Levitt suggests that it probably isn’t that much of a problem. There are lots of different restaurants from lots of different cultures, and so the fact that you are less likely to get a job at one restaurant is fine because you are more likely to get a job at another. If anyone loses out it is the majority population (British people in the UK) which you could argue is also less of a problem because many restaurants are not themed and minorities generally need more protection than majorities.

He also suggests that restaurants may not be directly discriminating at all. In the fictional Swedish-themed restaurant he and Stephen Dubner discuss, he says you could advertise for staff in Swedish magazines, and write the job advert in Swedish. In the restaurant Dubner visits to do some interviews, they say they also hire extensively from friends and family of existing staff. Thus the restaurants are not refusing to hire white people, they just don’t apply.

Levitt also notes that customers prefer authentic staff. Which is probably true right. It’s nice to go to a Chinese restaurant and have Chinese people working there. The experience loses something when someone clearly British is serving you. This is silly when you think about it though. This is just your waiter; they’re not the chef. They’re almost like dressing for the restaurant. And even if the chef was Chinese too, that doesn’t mean they are automatically a better Chinese food cook.

Dubner also gives the example of airline hostesses. Back in the day, airlines would specifically hire attractive, unmarried stewardesses, and after they married they were expected to give it up. This proved popular with their business clientele (middle-aged businessmen) but the court ruled against it saying part of fighting discrimination was challenging these ideas of preference. Just because we’re all a little bit wired to prefer authentic staff, doesn’t mean we should promote that as an acceptable social value.

Not to mention these groups are often lumped together: Mexican restaurants are often staffed with Spanish and Portuguese waiters, Indian restaurants are often staffed by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and Thai restaurants are often staffed by Vietnamese people.

Language could be a genuine reason. In a Latin restaurant that Dubner interviews, they say the orders are called out in Spanish in the kitchen, so you can make a case for requiring that. However, when speaking to an equality lawyer, they talked about a restaurant chain that was successfully sued because the plaintiff argued language requirements were just being used as a proxy for discrimination.

In summary, the answer is no. Restaurants cannot, and should not, discriminate to get authentic staff. However a combination of indirect discrimination and language requirements may allow restaurants to primarily hire such staff without any direct discrimination.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, July 28th, 2016 at 10:28 am and is filed under Religion & Politics, Thoughts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.