It’s not every day that I’m offered a job as a waitress by a random stranger — in fact, it had never happened before early 2017. I never thought about working in a bar, or anything the like that in the hospitality sector, but the restaurant this young man, roughly my age, wanted to employ me for was grim enough to put off any potential change of career — dark walls, a bar that had seen better days, and a nostril-killing stink of burnt cooking oil.
Photographer Maka Gogaladze and I ended up eating there by chance while on assignment in Ninotsminda, a town in the southern Georgian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti. The region is among Georgia’s poorest, and is off the beaten tourist track. In this town of 5,000, two young women chatting in Russian and English having lunch are like black swans.
The job offer, though, was not a random, goofy pick-up attempt. For restaurants in the area, finding staff is in fact a challenge. Unemployment is rife — some statistics put it at 80 percent — and a UN Women study conducted in late 2013 shows that women pay the highest price. Most of those who do work are employed in the public sector, mainly schools and kindergartens, while private businesses are made up almost exclusively of banks and shops. The region has been neglected by the central government for decades, and the language barrier has deepened the divide even further. Men leave seeking work, in other regions of Georgia or abroad, mainly in Russia, while women are left to struggle. Yet a traditional, patriarchal society means that women working in bars and restaurants are frowned upon at best, isolated at worst.
While chatting with a group of women which included Susana Manukyan, who served for 20 years as chairman of the Akhalkalaki Municipality court, I learnt that no local people are employed as waitresses — women consider that job below their dignity and they’d rather suffer with hard physical work in the fields than serving in a bar.
In light of the job’s reputation, businesses end up “importing” waitresses from other regions or from neighbouring Armenia to fill the posts.
“A man would not allow his wife or girlfriend to work in a men-dominated environment. Male customers tend to drink and swear, and husbands don’t want their wives to be exposed to that, such is the mentality,” explains Manukyan.
It’s interesting that these beer drinkers are also local men, maybe someone’s husband or father, but their behavior at home differs much from when they are in the bar with friends.
Armine Albertyan, who worked for years as a hotel manager in Akhalkalaki, agrees.
“There are cafes where male customers touch the staff, harass them verbally, or insult them,” says Albertyan, who is herself prone to assume that “a waitress is an easy woman”. When she was asked to work for a few hours in a bar, just to give the owner the time to find someone, she refused.
Half-Georgian, half-Armenian, Diana Ateiani is less fussed. The 18-year-old recently moved to Akhalkalaki from her native Abastumani, a town 100 kilometres to the west, following her mother’s example. And just like her mother, Diana picked up a job as a waitress. She is married and has a three-year-old daughter.
“People in Abastumani think differently. They’re more open-minded — in the way they dress, in [what they think of] jobs. For them, the most important thing is to enjoy life and earn something for the family, it doesn’t matter what kind of job they have. Here, everyone scrutinizes what you wear, what you eat, and so on. They don’t let women work in restaurants. My husband is Georgian — he doesn’t mind that I work as a waitress. He trusts me and he knows where I work.”
Diana works in a hotel restaurant — the atmosphere is relaxed and it’s family friendly. In the evening, however, the customers are almost exclusively men, drinking alcohol, and the atmosphere changes.
“Yesterday one man came and pretended to be talking on the phone. Then took a piece of paper and wrote his number on it, called me over, and asked when it would be convenient for me to give him a call. I asked why I would call him, and he replied that he had to talk to me about something. I insisted he tell me things right there, he refused, claiming it was too crowded, so he couldn’t say that. Then I told him that I had a husband and I was not going to call him. So he disappeared. I’ve told everyone here that I have a husband and a child and I don’t lead a parallel life [as in becoming someone’s mistress or engaging in prostitution].”
Not that local women treat her better. One of her neighbours in her early 30s is keen on reminding her that “waitresses are like whores,” Diana says, adding that the woman is surprised that “my husband lets me do that.”
Siranush Virabyan moved from Armenia in 2016 to work as a waitress, following her sister’s suggestion as she had been employed in a restaurant for some time. When her husband, a veteran from the Nagorno-Karabakh war, died in 2004, Virabyan was left alone with no money and two daughters to raise. She started working as a waitress. 13 years on, she is sticking to the job. She makes more or less the same money she’d make in Yerevan, but in Javakheti, life is cheaper and she can save something to send to her daughter who married in Yerevan and for her other teenage daughter who followed her.
The money may go further, but it doesn’t come easily. On average, a workday can be up to 12 hours long, with salaries varying greatly between GEL 250 and GEL 500 a month ($100–$200) — up to three times lower than the official average wage in Georgia and Armenia. Tips can amount to about GEL 5 per day ($2).Some business owners, like in the case of the post offered to me in Ninotsminda, include in the package free accommodation and meals.
Yet, breaking the taboo is hard, and women like Virabyan and Ateiani remain rare. As Virabyan says, “towns are small, customs are conservative. Traditions do not die out easily.”
Disclaimer: At the time of publishing, Diana Ataiani has left her job as a waitress and has returned to Abastumani with her family. She is now studying management.