Over the last two weeks, I have been shouted at, sworn at, insulted, and proffered very personal, often prejudice based, abuse. I have been threatened with assault, physical abuse, and serious bodily harm, to the point where I have genuinely feared for my safety.
And the reason?
Because I had the cheek to work behind a bar over the Christmas period.
I have worked for a fairly high brow and respectable small chain of pubs since September and but not until Christmas did I find myself so frequently across the bar from individuals who so clearly did not value me as the provider of their service. The disdain with which I have been treated through the so-called “most wonderful time of the year”.
Since moving to the hospitality industry I have come to realise why it is often quoted as the most downtrodden industry. But the (surprisingly frequent) disrespectful customers are just the tip of the mistreatment iceberg. From management across the industry, from paycheques, from time sheets, from customers, from the media, there is a multi-faceted, subconscious devaluing of the staff that provides one of the most popular services in the UK.
So what doesn’t the workforce stand up for itself? Why aren’t we unionised?
The frequency of abuses of staff is significantly under-reported. From staff being paid less than the minimum wage, to staff being forced to pick up the bill if customers walk out without paying this kind of abuse is widespread. Additionally, more traditional abuses such as tip stealing and use of zero hours contracts continue to be rife in the industry. One has to look no further than the hospitality industry to see businesses willing to undermine the rights of their employees for the sake of profit.
From housekeepers in the most expensive five star hotels, to waiters in your favourite Italian restaurant, to bartenders in your local see the lowest rate of unionisation of any industry in the UK according to government statistics. As few as 2.5% of the people who pull your pint or turn down your bed are members of a trade union.
Young people, seasonal staff, immigrant workforce and part time workers tend to make up the workforce of the hospitality industry: an overlap of each of the demographics with the lowest rates of unionisation in the UK.
However, in my experience of the industry, the challenge is more than that, and is one faced by every trade union in every sector across the country. As I have talked to my colleagues about joining a union such as mine, I have quickly come to realise many people just fundamentally do not know what a Trade Union can do for them. Many doubt the power of collective bargaining, strike action and generally organised labour.
The sad truth is that many of the challenges faced by bartenders and waiters, a union could go far to deal with. However, in order to fight these battles unions must overcome a pessimism that exists in the industry, purely because workers have become so used to terrible working conditions that they don’t expect another way to be possible. Many workers in the industry have essentially normalised their own abuse.
There are two very simple challenges that I want to make following my experience of the industry.
- To customers who use the services - remember that the person behind the bar, the person providing you the service, is a human being. The work in the industry is hard, long and emotionally draining. Spare us a thought and remember that we are just trying to do our jobs. We all have mouths to feed and bills to pay too. Everyone has a right to not being abused in the workplace, and it is all of our responsibilities to make sure we are not the abuser, or sitting idly by and letting the abuse happen.
- To the trade union movement - let us make our new year’s resolution for 2018 to get involved in fighting for the rights of some of the most mistreated and downtrodden employees in our society. We in the Trade Union movement need to be proactive in creating plans and policies for the hospitality industry, and proving that their is a better way than the long hours and the low pay. We need to be setting our sights on mass membership of unions that are unashamed in their fight for the hospitality industry.
Here’s to hoping that 2018 is a year of different attitudes toward the workers watering and feeding our society. And, maybe, by Christmas 2018, the abuse I suffered will be a thing of the past, and your bartenders, waiters, baristas, and housekeepers will get the respect they deserve.