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“You are replaceable”: unsustainable attitudes in the hospitality industry

Holly Letch has nine years in the hospitality industry. She got in touch wanting to share her thoughts and experience of what can happen when the values that are shouted and publicised by establishments don’t extend to their treatment of staff.

Sustainable, farm-to-table, seasonal, produce-led, slow, modern, regenerative, natural, green, ethical. These are all descriptors of restaurants I have worked for and delight in dining at; beloved institutions which abruptly closed with each wave of coronavirus. The intimate Michelin-starred restaurant I worked for closed its doors on multiple occasions in line with restrictions, each time placing me and the team on furlough, like millions of others hospitality employees in the UK. In my case, however, along with each email confirming my furloughed status, came a list of tasks: reservations to reschedule, spreadsheets to update, guests to contact and appease.

 

These tasks were not part of the flexible furlough arrangement, whereby employers pay 100% of wages for any part-time work undertaken. They were to be done whilst my employer claimed the maximum government support, which stipulates employees must not be working. Despite the illegality of the request, I was expected to “muck in” and appreciate that I had “not been laid off”. When I shared my frustration with my employers, the exchange culminated in what was ostensibly a disciplinary in which my attitude was challenged and my employer remarked: “You know, you are replaceable. I could replace you tomorrow.” Annihilating my nine years of industry experience in one fell swoop.

 

Like many other modern London restaurants, this business thrives from working with the ethical ‘crème de la crème’ the regenerative farms who hunt out wild and wonderful varieties with awe-inspiring seasonality; the natural winemakers, whose zero-additions philosophy offers bountiful character and an innate sense of warmer climes; the potter, whose hand-thrown craft and work with natural glazes produces ceramics with texture and identity. The restaurant goes to great lengths to highlight these practices on their Instagram account, portraying alluring images to the world in an immaculately curated feed.

 

My job, fundamentally as a waiter, is to present this ‘allure’ to the guest. To serve the food, pour the wine and comment tastefully on the ceramics. Yet these ethical niceties rarely extend to the staff. I smile, serve and satisfy, despite unpaid overtime, the empty promise of a pension scheme or being forced to work whilst furloughed. These conditions often spread to all levels of workplace culture and it is not uncommon to be in earshot of conversations between staff boasting lack of sleep and back-to-back doubles, with holiday scarcely taken. An industry veteran wears these feats as a badge of honour and then goes on to run the restaurants, kitchens and bars which continue to proliferate these physically and mentally destructive attitudes.

 

The well-documented abuse and patriarchal power dynamics in traditional kitchens (think Gordon Ramsay or Marco Pierre White) feels dated when set side-by-side with their more ethical, contemporary cousins. However, what pervades restaurants of all kinds is a mentality that working in hospitality is akin to signing away your rights as an employee. The lack of unionisation exacerbates this, as does the perception of hospitality workers as ‘unskilled’ and inherently transient. And the exclusion of service charge in the furlough scheme was hard evidence of the government’s lack of consideration about how the industry operates. The oversight left many on less than minimum wage and kickstarted a UK movement to remove the controversial 12.5% service charge, as well as a petition for a hospitality minister which reached over 200,000 signatures. It accentuated the need for a voice to represent the rights of 3.2 million hospitality employees in the UK.

 

Of course, this negative portrayal is not entirely representative of the industry, and having built strong relationships with restaurant owners, chefs and ‘veterans’ over the years I can safely say there is a wonderfully altruistic and convivial heart to the hospitality industry. However this is not prolific enough to quash concerns of mental health, wellbeing and inequality. I can only speak for the hospitality industry, but these concerns run rife in other industries too and are only becoming more overt and acute in light of the pandemic.

 

This summer we celebrate the return of hospitality and, markedly, a social life. And as we go back to working in, and eating out at the sustainable, modern, regenerative, conscientious and ethical restaurants, we should endeavour to extend these notions to the staff, not just the customer-facing, Instagram-friendly side of the business. We need to seriously consider: Where is the balance between meeting the demand of guests with the needs of staff? How can we weave an ethical working schedule into the tight margins and late hours of a restaurant? How it is possible to make hospitality a more sustainable career choice with longevity across all ages, backgrounds and genders? There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but what is unanimous is that if we universally extend the ‘ethical’ narrative that restaurants so eagerly align themselves with, we will more sincerely reveal the generosity, community and spirit that the hospitality industry is built on.

 

Article by Holly Letch, edited by Chloe Hamilton

 

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