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If you work in and around the hospitality trade, then there is likely only one subject you have been talking about for the last few months: the sudden lack of available staff. Due to multiple factors, which will be discussed in today’s two essays, hospitality has been hit disproportionately hard by these staff shortages. I have heard stories of aggressive poaching, of restaurants where no staff have turned up in the morning, ominous apparitions of head chefs suddenly being spotted actually working in the restaurants bearing their name.
These shortages have mostly been framed in the media as a crisis, and with obvious reasons. I have friends who own restaurants who are putting in extra work to make up for lack of staff; equally I have friends who are employed in restaurants who feel as overworked as ever. And yet, in crisis there is also opportunity to be found. The notion that workers are infinitely replaceable and interchangeable has been shown to be a lie. For the workers who remain, there is a growing feeling that their labour is foundational to the running of a business, rather than a commodity that can be swapped at any given moment. This feeling of empowerment has been seen in the organised strikes at Assembly Bakery in Bristol, as well as in the uncoordinated but simultaneous resignations I have heard happened at a prominent London restaurant this week, in response to poor management.
The following newsletter is about the notion of replaceability in the hospitality industry, written by those who work or who have worked in it. The first article, by front of house Holly Letch, takes off from an earlier article initially developed and published in Countertalk, and talks about the structural problems that have led to these pervasive ideas of transience. The second, by trade unionist Rees Nicolas and chef Eric Jeffers, offers some potential solutions and hope, that if hospitality is in crisis, it should not be a crisis for workers.
“You Are Replaceable”, by Holly Letch
By the third lockdown, we had already been shut for months. As a Michelin-starred restaurant with an elaborate tasting menu, our offering did not readily translate to takeaways or ‘finish-at-home meals’. So, with little impetus to pivot, I, along with the rest of the team, was furloughed on a basic wage (exclusive of any service charge). And yet, contrary to the furlough scheme’s legalities, and despite my objections, my employers had explicitly demanded that I continue all my administrative duties. There were many months’ worth of guests to reschedule as well as inboxes to attend and the reopening to action; a workload I told them was unjustifiable without compensation.
When my employers called a face-to-face meeting at the restaurant, I assumed it would be to overcome this impasse with some form of compromise. Instead, it was ostensibly a disciplinary for asking for legalities to be followed, to strong-arm me into continuing to work while on furlough. My attitude was questioned. I was told I should be able to ‘muck in for the interests of the business and be grateful I even had a job.’ ‘By the way,’ they asked, didn’t I know ‘how tough Covid-19 was’ for them?’ I said that of course this pandemic was difficult for everyone, businesses and workers alike. Their reply: ‘You know you are replaceable? You could be replaced tomorrow.’
Eight months on, I have a new job – and no one in hospitality is considered replaceable. ONS data shows that, between May and July, hospitality vacancies had reached an all-time high of 117,000, forcing restaurants, cafes and bakeries into periodical or permanent closure due to staffing shortages. I worked the hotly anticipated summer reopening which, for many, became blotted by Covid-19 closures, reduced opening hours and employee exhaustion. These strains were well documented at the time, but six months on they still persevere; a constant undercurrent in everyday restaurant life.
Whilst being explicitly labelled ‘replaceable’ is not a common practice industry-wide, ideas of hospitality staff being transient and temporary are endemic in the UK. When I wrote about my experiences in Countertalk earlier this year, I received inordinate support from fellow hospitality employees at varying levels. One waiter told me that they wished ‘to not feel so replaceable in comparison to a member of the management team’; meanwhile, managers talked of the ‘sacrifice of health and mental well-being’ their employers would demand of them. One head chef, who has since left the industry, expressed that lockdown was the catalyst for them to move away from kitchens as they recognised the physical and creative burnout induced by the high-pressure environment.
Ask hospitality workers how the industry is perceived and many will tell you that it’s seen as a support act to other, more fulfilling aspirations, or as a side-hustle for casual workers. Sometimes that’s true, but it’s also true that discussions of training, development and ambition are few and far between. This is not to say these notions are universally disregarded, but the lack of dialogue surrounding industry progression is indicative of a lethargy towards staff retention. When I spoke to Countertalk, who also operate an online platform for jobs in hospitality, they highlighted hospitality’s lack of long-term planning, telling me that ‘junior or entry-level staff are assumed to be transient before they've made a move’ and that ‘in no other industry would you assume a new hire will leave within 6–12 months.’
None of this is new. The idea of transience within the hospitality industry, where staff can be easily ‘replaced’, has long been a self-fulfilling prophecy: a revolving door of prospects, priming and P45s, and an assumption that new bodies can be easily found at the same price. But introduce a pandemic, compounded punctually with ‘Brexodus’, and unsurprisingly the industry finds itself in turmoil. The multinational workforce, who are often in low-paid and precarious jobs, has been decimated as employees, willing or not, have sought security elsewhere. This exodus has been felt across the country, and now, in lieu of raising wages, many restaurants have little resolve but to reduce opening hours or overwork staff.
For those of us who have remained in the UK and stayed in hospitality ─ some out of choice ─ we have witnessed many of our peers leaving the industry in search of fewer hours, fairer wages and a just working environment. This should provoke some self-reflection: have ingrained notions of transience and replaceability exacerbated the hospitality workforce shortage? If the industry placed more social and economic value on the employee, would workforces be more resilient during turbulent times? There are some restaurants which have sought a resolution by incentivising new staff through increasing wages, altering hours and offering workplace benefits, but these reactive measures may be a superficial bandage to current staffing shortages. Restaurants must endeavour to go further to address the destructive workplace cultures that have exacerbated this deficit.
My own story is just one of a deluge of accounts this year – both public and private – alleging hospitality mistreatment. These accounts of mistreatment or abuse necessitate change, but to achieve this we must understand them not in isolation from one another but in a comprehensive capacity, acknowledging the knotty relationship between staffing shortages, employee value, low wages, long hours and workplace mistreatment. We can start to comprehend the sudden proliferation of these accounts by appreciating that restaurants cannot be isolated from their geography or the societal structures that support them. Can you extract the financial pressure of the industry from urban environments, where slim margins parallel immoderate and increasing rent? In a climate of spiralling food, fuel and beverage costs, is it possible to challenge the status quo by paying fair wages, honouring breaks and investing in training without dining out becoming an expensive and exclusive affair? And if not, does it mean that the idea of a truly equitable restaurant is just a utopian mirage?
This all paints a rather pessimistic picture, far removed from the conviviality and community of the restaurant. As we recalibrate the industry after this tumultuous period, an emphasis on employee welfare should be standard across the board. Hospitality is an industry founded on generosity and cordiality, so one would hope these notions begin with the staff, extending universally, even behind closed doors. To practice a more sincere hospitality is to rigorously confront mistreatment; to undo ideas of employee transience and instead prioritise the well-being of its workers. An almighty undertaking for an expansive and established industry, but one necessary if we want to embark on a more just and genuine hospitality.
You are not replaceable, by Rees Nicolas and Eric Jeffers
From the perspective of the customer, restaurants offer a seamless experience, their differences marked only by the quality, style and content of their food and front-of-house staff, all mediated through the skill of the chef. Yet such appearances shroud the truth – that hospitality is a highly differentiated industry. Behind the similarities of restaurants is a deeply stratified distribution of capital: in the restaurant trade, we cannot really speak of a capitalist class, so much as a series of distinct classes whose capitals are different in both magnitude and kind. Is there any other industry today, in a post-industrial society, where we can so clearly trace everything from the artisanal individual producer, through small and medium enterprises, all the way up to multinational behemoths – operating and competing alongside one another in a single sphere of activity? This is not to say that the industry is backward or underdeveloped; rather, it is one whose continued development requires stratification.
The most obvious example of this is the explosion in outsourcing. A decade ago, when we were all still excited to go to our favourite pop ups, we had no idea that what we were enjoying was a symptom of employers gradually vacating the liabilities of employment in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. If you had a pop-up restaurant in your venue, you no longer had to hire kitchen staff, deal with wholesalers or ensure environmental health protocols were respected: it became the job of the pop-up. This model gradually seeped through the industry and now, while the customer believes they are going to a singular venue, they may in fact be patronising two or even three businesses.
This has been a mixed blessing for workers. Chefs can now think of themselves as hired agents with specific skills and talents that can be used for bartering with the employer. They can demand higher wages for their services, and if they do not like the organisation they work for, they can move on abruptly. But this also has obvious benefits for employers, who are no longer required to pay minimum wage, or cover sick leave, holiday pay, pensions, or maternity and paternity periods. In reality, these chefs are doing self-employed piece-work that amounts to ‘employed’ status, whilst the employer vacates all responsibility, further exacerbating the imbalance of power between a worker – who has become an individual on the market – and the collective bargaining power of capital. As a result, 59% of hospitality workers are considered low-paid, the highest incidence in any sector of the economy.
The shortage has inevitably hit each stratum differently, with different effects and potentials for struggle, as well as different responses. The reaction from the industry ideologues has been especially revealing: in June of this year, UK Hospitality – the ‘single, authoritative voice representing the broad hospitality sector’ (otherwise known as the bosses’ club) – proposed a 12-point plan. Running the predictable gamut – from new training programmes to tax cuts, from coercive intervention by the DWP to exploitative immigration reform – the plan was beset by one glaring omission: the need to directly improve the wages and conditions of workers.
Of course, improving wages and conditions has proved the only possible choice for small- and medium-scale restaurateurs. Wage rises are finally growing way above inflation, trending towards something like a living wage. The restaurant chain MWEat has increased wages by between 10–15%, and bonuses have also started appearing to combat staff shortages: Hawksmoor, the upmarket steakhouse, is not alone in offering hundreds of pounds to staff who recommend friends for vacancies. Where workers can’t be found at any price, restaurants have had to reduce hours, suspend lunch service, or shut for whole days. Some employers are predicting a ‘brain drain’, with workers from outside the capital recruited for London’s gargantuan restaurant industry; others have sought to increase hours and enforce overtime, but their vulnerability to resignations makes them reluctant to push too hard (I know of one friend who, leaving a job three weeks in, had already become the longest-serving member of staff).
The multinationals and market leaders have begun to trial much more consequential interventions. Compass Group, the largest catering company in the world, acquired the tech start-up Feedr in March 2020, and now offers corporate clients the dubious pleasure of a ‘cloud canteen’ – a remote kitchen shared across offices from which employees can order their meals on an individual basis, without employers having to front the expense of an on-site canteen. Meanwhile, the cookless kitchen hovers on a distant horizon, where labour is replaced by machines.
The pandemic has also produced an explosion in popularity of the takeaway sector, leading companies to find another solution in so-called dark kitchens. Here, dozens of brands can share a single space, along with associated portering, cleaning, and preparation costs – reducing overheads and a reliance on labour at the same time, and potentially modelling an industrial revolution in food production. Hospitality capital’s belief in this new avenue for saving labour can be seen in the £252m in Series A funding raised by London start-up Karma Kitchens, and Deliveroo’s decision to double its network of dark kitchens from thirty-two to sixty-four in the next year. As was the case in 2008, labour that was previously performed by employees is now outsourced to third-party companies, to freelancers, to subcontractors, to precariously ‘self-employed’ drivers, and to machines.
At this point it is important to affirm a simple, historically demonstrable fact: if we let them, the bosses will settle any crisis in their favour. All the strategies listed above, whether temporary or permanent, have the potential to succeed in cutting short the gains that hospitality workers might otherwise have expected to glean from the labour shortage. Temporary wage hikes, for example, only redistribute a finite pool of labour between restaurants like a game of musical chairs, each player hoping they won’t be the one caught out when the music stops, and a brain drain would only exacerbate imbalances between London and regional hospitality markets, creating a two-tier workforce. Similarly, demanding more working hours will only worsen the criminal burnout and negative health impact of working in hospitality, while the reliance on an even more stratified, fragmented and automated production process will decrease the ability of workers to organise together.
For these reasons, it is imperative that workers themselves dictate the terms of exit from this crisis. To succeed in this requires organisation, but does not mean waiting to act. ‘Join a union’ is a standard refrain, but in an industry where unionisation is rare, if not unheard of, this would be putting the cart before the horse. Workers don’t need – and have never needed – a formal union in order to organise. Kitchens, restaurants, bars, bakeries and cafes are all predominantly organised through messaging apps like WhatsApp. At work itself, there are countless in-person conversations daily. The means of organising are already there at our fingertips.
The real question, then, is how to take action. The answer will differ from place to place, but ultimately hinges on the only tool workers have ever had to hand: the collective refusal of work. At this unique moment, such refusal is no longer a sackable offence; instead, it shows bosses their weakness. Whether it be refusing overtime, demanding time off, going slow, or simply downing tools en masse, the effect is the same: telling management that if they do not accede to the demands of staff, they will not have a product to sell. In dark kitchens, from which entire postcodes can expect their meals delivered, the effect of a shutdown of this sort will only be amplified, particularly with London the ground zero of the global takeaway wars.
The hospitality and catering industries are especially vulnerable to this type of action: if stock is not used in time, it will rot; if customers cannot be served food when they want it, they will go elsewhere; every day a commercial space is not in use, rent takes a hefty toll on the owner’s wallet. Modern hospitality relies on the immediate production and sale of its commodity, a constant flow of food from the hands of chefs to the mouths of patrons; any interruption is experienced as a minor catastrophe by the boss. And these catastrophes can be used by workers to force change. The just-in-time kitchen means that every point in the production chain – from stocking to preparation, cooking, and delivery – is uniquely vulnerable to the organised disruption of labour, doubly so when there is nobody there to replace you if you step off the job.
What is there to win? A new, more hospitable kind of hospitality: wages that are liveable; an end to unpaid and underpaid hours; overtime that fairly recompenses excess work; greater control over the terms of employment; and a recognition that labour that has for so long been deemed ‘unskilled’ or ‘low-skilled’ can no longer be viewed as replaceable.
Holly Letch works front of house in restaurants as well as teaching children about food growing with interests spanning sustainability, ethics and environmentalism.
Rees Nicolas is a trade unionist working as a library assistant, tutor, and translator. He worked in a primary school lunch hall during the horse meat scandal.
Eric Jeffers works as a chef and a part-time PhD student in London. He previously ran a vegan pop up in South London.
Many thanks to Sophie Whitehead for additional edits, and to Countertalk.
Bristol’s Wildcat Bakery Strike, Tribune
Workers Consider Their Future, Eater London
Unsustainable Attitudes in the Hospitality Industry, Countertalk