Innuendo in the contract

Submitted by AWL on 16 May, 2008 - 12:11 Author: Louise Gold

Sheffield was to be the second city in England to host a Hooters franchise — the American restaurant chain where young “cheer leader/surfer girl-next-door” waitresses, wearing a uniform of “white Hooters tank top, orange shorts, suntan hose, white socks, solid white shoes, brown Hooters pouch, name-tag and of course...a smile!” are the main employee (http://hooters.com). Now the franchise contract has been discarded under pressure from a campaign. The AWL were not a part of the campaign. But I’m not sure about our reasoning.

It was suggested the main anti-campaign — mounted by the Sheffield Fems — was anti-working class, because it demonstrated against the men and lad culture Hooters would encourage. But I think the Sheffield Fem campaign is anti-working class because it is anti the sex industry in general, rather than because it demonises Hooters clientele (who would probably be more likely be students and local white collar workers).

The fear Hooters would create the growth and spread of the sex industry in the area is what was most pious and irrelevant about the anti-campaign. The focus was on the losses for local business and the cheapening of Leopold Square; so far being inhabited by a “boutique” hotel and generic mid-price chains of restaurant, like Wagamama’s and Zizzi’s.

Some comrades objected on practical grounds — we couldn’t follow the campaign around giving out alternative literature against Hooters. However the Sheffield Fems campaign should never have been the starting point from where we shaped our own oppositional stance to Hooters. It was in fact an unfortunate distraction to the real political problems for workers arising if the Hooters bar had been opened.

We don’t call for strip clubs to be shut down because we see strippers as workers (not as some feminists might, as sex slaves) and because of the job losses this would incur from closures. Neither of these arguments was relevant here. Jobs were not going to be lost if this deal fell through. The particular type of exploitation women workers would face in Hooters, according to the American convention, was contractual sexual harassment — a denial of their working rights.

Sex work is not the same. Sex, or the lure of sex in the case of strippers, is the service being sold, not a woman’s body. A sex worker — with full working rights — has a control over her own body and the situation she is in.

In the case of workers for Hooters, their service is to sell alcohol and food, but to ensure they both get and keep their job are forced to agree that they will oblige their customers with a smile even when said customer touches or flirts with them in a provocative manner.

In the USA Hooters girls have to sign a contract that reads: “I hereby acknowledge and affirm that the Hooters concept is based on female sex appeal and that the work environment is one in which joking and innuendo based on female sex appeal is commonplace.” It continues: “I also expressly acknowledge and affirm I do not find my job duties, uniform requirements or work environment to be intimidating, hostile or unwelcome.” (Julie Bindel, the Guardian, 11 April 2008)

Hooters claim they still have a “model programme” for reporting harassment, yet I find it hard to see where the line between “joking” and “harassment” is drawn. Nor can I see how a worker would find it easy to file a case against a customer or the company, having signed a contract to say she does by no means find this indistinguishable behaviour from customers “intimidating” or “unwelcome”.

Whilst I disagree with much of the substance of Guardian writer Julie Bindel’s article detailing the Sheffield case, I found it useful that she highlights previous lawsuits against Hooters: “(in) a notorious case against the company in Florida… the plaintiff alleged that she had been subjected to ‘an endless torrent of sexually inappropriate remarks, demands for sex and uninvited touching that created a situation in which no reasonable woman would have continued to work’.” (Julie Bindel, the Guardian, 11 April) I don’t think this is a one-off but a generalised product of contractual and cultural chauvinism.

Another reason stated for not becoming involved in the Sheffield campaign was because our response to the opening of a workplace should not depend on whether the workers might potentially be at risk of suffering a particular variant of the exploitation spectrum; all workers are exploited.

There are varying types of exploitation however. Shouldn’t we be against overtly sexist and regressive workplaces where harassment — the sort of harassment only women are expected to tolerate — is culturally compulsory. We shouldn’t wait until there are a group of women workers are humiliated in their workplace until we do anything about it. If Hooters had already been established in Sheffield with jobs guaranteed, then unionising those workers would be the course of action. As it happens Hooters has gone away as a product of a local campaign against it, and good riddance frankly.

I think it a shame we did not run a politically sound campaign against Hooters from the off; one that didn’t comply with the scare mongering of Sheffield Fems against the “louts” Hooters would attract, but which focused on workers’ rights.

If we look to transitional demands and victories for our labour movement these sorts of jobs shouldn’t have to exist anymore. We need to take a case by case approach to working environments and industries. Supporting localised struggles is about shaping community campaigns so they are not coloured by bigotry and anti-working class sentiment, but are focused on engaging working class people in democracy against individual bosses and even the bullish misogyny of a capitalist empire, like Hooters.

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