Hospitality has long been a highly precarious sector. As part of our Power in a Union series, Unite Hospitality activist Jerry Maguire argues that the pandemic has only worsened the situation, making it more important than ever to unionise.
The Hospitality and Tourism sector, employing 60,000 people in Northern Ireland, contributing approximately £1.1bn to the economy annually, is perhaps the jewel in the crown for the North’s economy. With record numbers of visitor spending increasing year in year out and a forecast of a further 4% increase to come over the next two years its clear to see how profitable it is to own a hospitality business in the North. Especially when we look to the likes of Hospitality tycoon Bill Wolsey whose Beannchor group had grown its revenue by almost a quarter to £23.7 million in 2018.
But what is to be said of the fortunes of workers in hospitality? Nothing, if the political and economic establishment have their way. This success story of visitors spending and bosses’ pockets ballooning has not made any difference to those who put in the strenuous work so that the likes of Wolsey can live it up.
The reality is that, for hospitality workers, pay is abysmal and conditions are shocking. Long hours on your feet, with staff shortages and next to no breaks, is generalised across the industry. Then we have to factor in the disgusting levels of sexual harassment, with 90% of staff having experienced it at work. All of this, combined with widespread zero-hour contracts, paints an accurate and bleak picture of the working life of a hospitality worker.
The complete insecurity in one’s job and the normalisation of the above conditions are two factors key to understanding the reasons for why Trade Union density is as low as it is in the Tourism and Hospitality sector. The possibility of fighting to demand better is overshadowed by the very high probability of both job loss and as well as being blacklisted from other venues.
Low Pay and High Turn-over
The hospitality industry over the last 20 years or so has had an image of being a medium of employment for young people and students. The argument is often thrown around that zero-hour contracts allow for flexibility in the work/social life balance. In fact, to many it is simply a barrier to both.
To students and young people, the hospitality sector has been attractive because degrees and formal qualifications are not needed to gain access to employment in bars, restaurants and hotels. So, working in hospitality is often viewed as a job to get a few pounds here and there while you study so that you can go straight to a so-called ‘real job’ after graduation.
This image has had a knock-on effect for those who work in bars, restaurants and hotels as a full-time job and a sole source of income. The coming-and-going leaves the industry with hectic levels of staff shortages year-round, that management never address, with the increase in workload to be piled on the back of the other employees. This constant high turnover of staff has meant that bosses can keep wages down and terms of employment insecure.
As each April comes with the new tax year, we see the rise in prices of the alcohol we sell but we don’t see any real rise in the minimum wage rates of which governs our pay. The cost of living is ever growing all the while our wages stagnate in comparison.
A Yougov and Deputy survey investigating reasons hospitality workers leave the industry found that 40% of respondents who have worked or currently work in hospitality said they took a job in the sector because it was the only one available. For 44%, working in hospitality was their main occupation; 38% said they did it while in education and 15% said it was a second or third job. The top three reasons for leaving the sector for those surveyed were: unsociable working hours (69%); low pay and benefits (63%); and a lack of career prospects (35%).
Behind the Smiles
Poor mental health and substance abuse are rife among hospitality workers. Of course, those who enjoy the often excellent service in our pubs, restaurants, hotels and clubs can be forgiven for not being able to see what truly goes on behind the smiles of those who server them.
The work itself is very demanding. Upwards of 10-hour shifts are the norm, especially on weekends and particularly in city centres. The fast pace at which we work and the little down time builds up undealt-with stress. Verbal and sometimes physical abuse from members of the public while trying to make enough from wages to live makes hospitality a fertile ground for anxiety and other mental health issues.
A recent survey conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) found one in five hospitality workers suffer from work-related severe mental health issues. The survey also reported that almost two thirds (62%) do not think the hospitality sector takes care of its employees, three quarters (74%) have experienced verbal abuse from a customer and almost a quarter of those surveyed (24%) required medical or psychological help.
There is a disgraceful lack of mental health services in the North, and this has exacerbated and entrenched these psychological problems. It has led some to attempt to find some kind of escape through abuse of alcohol and illicit drugs.
As famous American Chef Anthony Bourdain mentioned in his book Kitchen Confidential, the hospitality industry is “drenched in drugs and alcohol”. Particularly after longer or more stressful shifts, it is common to find oneself on the other side of the bar for ‘one or two’ – almost always leading to a heavier session as more co-workers clock off. This practice fuels addiction. It was reported in 2018 that Food preparation and serving constitutes 17.4% of drug abuse while at work across all sectors in the UK.
Marx once wrote that:
“[the worker] does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home.”
It is part of a wider phenomenon which Marx called alienation. Its relevance is obvious when we consider how many in the industry abuse substances on the job to ‘zone out’ or to separate themselves completely for their work.
The roots of these problems are to be found in the way in which our social and working lives are organised, and that is first and foremost defined by a lack of control. So, the drastic use of drugs and alcohol at work can be seen as an attempt to reassert control in some way without actually dealing with the cause. This cause is, of course, capital’s need for profits over all else, with workers made to toil long hours on low pay and even less thanks as a result.
The COVID-19 pandemic further exposed the major fault lines between bosses and workers throughout the hospitality industry. In fact, it widened the gap.
The initial response from the Tory Government under Johnson was almost Orwellian, as they toyed with the idea of herd immunity, effectively the culling of elderly and vulnerable members of society. Johnson, who must have had better things to do other than lead a nation, was so slow to react that the pandemic was able to spread throughout the UK, the wind in its sails. Stormont too, like the lap dogs they often are, failed in hindering that aggressive spread.
As St Patrick’s Day was on the door, some pubs around Belfast decided to close in the interest of staff and customer safety, taking this step in the absence of leadership from the Executive who echoed Boris Johnson’s plea for punters to “avoid pubs, clubs and theatres,” instead of calling for closures.
Yet some of the bigger venues in Belfast remained open on St Patrick’s Day, solely to milk as much money from the public whilst putting staff and customers at risk.
Immediately once a lockdown was put in place, businesses across the board were announcing layoffs. The more prominent hospitality bosses were first to start the sackings, and they did so with extreme opportunism. They were then followed by smaller businesses for whom a severe reduction in cash flow made it seem like the only option.
After some pressure from the Trade Union movement, Tory Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the introduction of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJR) that offered to pay 80% of employees’ wages with a cap of up to £2500 per month until October 2020. Other loans and small business grants were also made available.
While at first it was a lifeline in the face of a wave of redundancies, it quickly became clear that this was in fact a bailout for the bosses. Employers were supposed to top up wages by 20% but it was not enforced. Leaving many struggling on a reduced income at the height of the pandemic while owners got a nice cut to their labour costs. Many employers, such as the Hastings Group which owns multiple luxury hotels across the North, refused to furlough some of their employees for several months throughout the pandemic.
The Executive’s dealings with the bosses through their representative lobbying body, Hospitality Ulster, over the course of this pandemic was a prime example of James Connolly’s words:
“Legislation does not control the Lords of Industry; it is the Lords of Industry who control legislation. As we have often put it: The Class which rules industrially will rule politically.”
Over the course of the Lockdown all the whims of the employers were met hastily by the Northern Executive such as the reduction of social distancing guidance from 2 meters down to 1 meter and the early reopening of parts of hospitality like pubs and bars that serve food and venues with beer gardens.
But yet the voice of workers fell on deaf ears. Calls from Unite Hospitality for measures to be put in place to prevent further redundancies and loss of skills were not met with the same glee as Hospitality Ulster were. In fact, it took hospitality workers and their Union, Unite Hospitality, to hold a protest at Stormont to get an ounce of attention from both the Executive and the media. Minister of Economy, Diana Dodds, has still (at time of writing) not met with Hospitality workers for them to have their say.
Workers Fight Back
Over the last 2 years, hospitality workers in the North have been given a glimpse of hope through the creation of Unite Hospitality NI; a branch in Unite the Union for hospitality workers. The creation of the branch was well overdue for a sector with historically low union density and for a sector that needs to fight back.
Right off the mark, Unite Hospitality NI has had a forward-thinking approach to organising workers in their workplaces and getting them into the Union. It has been met with enthusiasm all across Belfast. At a public meeting called to launch the branch scores of people had to be turned away as it was packed to capacity. Many signed up there and then. And the branch has grown steadily since, even experiencing a doubling of membership over the lockdown.
During the lockdown, the branch had kept a very active presence by holding weekly public meetings online, distributing information regarding workers’ rights and entitlements and even aided in providing PPE and stewarding at a protest called by hospitality workers on St. Patrick’s Day outside a number of open bars, which subsequently played a role in their early closure. As lockdown eased, Unite Hospitality was critical of the relaxations as they were still putting staff at risk, staging a socially distanced protest at Stormont to reiterate concerns and further call for protections to ‘Save Our Jobs’.
The one thing that has been made clear by the crisis is that workers’ lives and interests are not even a second thought to the greedy bosses and their government facilitators. The more our lives are put at risk by pandemic, poverty and psychological issues stemming from the tunnel vision of profit motives means that we need to get organized and fight back. Hospitality workers need to join a Trade Union to begin that fight. It is a mammoth task, but the task is but a tiny one when compared to our collective power when we unite.
Active and militant trade unionism is going to become a continuously necessary aspect for workers in hospitality going forward post-lockdown. There is a wealth of recent experience we can draw lessons from such as: the fights won by TGIFs workers; The Weatherspoon’s U-Turn; and the historic strikes by McDonald’s workers. And of course, we should draw inspiration from the recent mass strikes by thousands of Nurses across the North in January.