Ethnic businesses should invest and respect human capital

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Pradip Rodrigues

Recently I had three conversations with three different people and it all ended with the same conclusion. Most small Indian businesses are condemned to be small businesses forever. There is little growth, innovation or recognition of these businesses in the national mainstream.

Let me start with the first conversation I had with Darshan Maharaj, a thinker who observed that he is yet to meet a South Asian businessman who pays his staff a fair wage. “Everyone I know who works for South Asians consider that to be their second job or need a second job to make ends meet. For good wages and a good standard of living, we are still dependent on the white man,” he said.

Next I met a restaurant entrepreneur currently in the process of setting up a couple of boutique Indian restaurants who said it was harder getting professional restaurant staff walk through the door than it was to get well-heeled diners! Having set up restaurants in both Mumbai and Delhi and now working in Toronto, this entrepreneur has concluded that Indian restaurateurs run their business on a different model based on recruiting staff desperate enough to work for less than the standard wages. So needless to say they often end up with badly trained staff and third-rate cooks. And worse still is the good staff they may get quickly flee at the first opportunity. The servers are often new immigrants and increasingly foreign students who work for much less than the $14 minimum wage. Turnover is high and that is the reason many Indian restaurants like South-Asian run businesses never grow. The restaurant could still be running, but the owners have changed multiple times along with the staff that could change on a monthly basis.

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“South Asian businessmen often do not respect, harness and see the long-term benefit of investing in human capital” said Darshan.

I spoke with Nupur Chowgule, a recent George Brown Culinary Arts graduate who would never dream of working for a South Asian restaurant owner as they have the dubious distinction of never paying decent wages. “We foreign students heard so many horror stories of wages being withheld, missing tips and exploitation. Only someone desperate or bad would consider taking such a risk,” she said.

This may explain why despite dozens of great chefs and culinary management foreign students coming out of many Canadian schools are all looking for jobs with non-South Asian-owned businesses. This may also explain why so many ethnic restaurants rely on importing chefs from the sub-continent.

A while ago I spoke to an over-worked medical assistant at an Indian-owned and run medical practice. She revealed that she was paid a lot less than she’d earn at a ‘Canadian’-run medical practice. What kept her from landing such jobs was her poor communications and lack of experience. Although she worked full-time, she got no benefits, no vacation and a half-hour unpaid lunch on her shift. She aspires to work someday for a ‘Canadian-run medical practice.

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Now many ethnic businessmen claim they pay less because they make less but I wondered about the Indian doctors who I assume get paid the same as their Canadian counterparts for the services rendered. It has nothing to do with the mindset, it has more to do with the way we South Asians perceive ourselves and each other.

And on that score, most of us are guilty of perceiving our own as being less worthy of Canadian standard wages. When we call a South Asian handyman, we will sub-consciously want to pay him less than a white handyman. We assume his work is inferior and he himself will offer his services at a lower price. I asked one such handyman about his experiences with working with different ethnicities and he said to me: “Desi people are the worst. Either they will bargain so much and then find fault and make me do more work. I have had to run after them for my money. If I get a white person and a desi client, I will always prefer the white,” he said rather candidly.

When we go to a small Indian restaurant, it would feel as if we were being ripped off if we paid more than $12 for a buffet, of course when we go to a French or an Italian restaurant, we are more willing to leave a bigger tip and pay more for bland pasta and boiled vegetables. Do we even care to know that the cook inside is quite possibly being exploited and paid poorly or that server is being paid $5 bucks an hour?

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Big corporations invest heavily in talent and human capital which they realize is integral to their future growth. They look at well-trained staff as an investment as opposed to an expense that needs to ruthlessly controlled and exploited. To give just one example, let’s take an Indian restaurant that pays a good cook well and treats the staff right, when they are happy, they give their best because they have a stake in the success of the restaurant. This in turn brings in business and mostly good reviews that leads to a great reputation which takes years to build. Unfortunately many promising South Asian-owned businesses have floundered or failed to grow nationally because they have adopted an exploitative business model.

Until South Asian businesses adopt Canadian values and treat their employees with dignity, respect and fairness, we will never attract the best talent and be on par with mainstream Canadian businesses. -CINEWS

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