About Money

New play written by Unite member Eliza Gearty shines the spotlight on exploitation in hospitality

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A new play written by a Unite member lays bare the consequences of divide and rule tactics in the workplace – and reflects “exactly what’s going on” in the real-life hospitality sector.

Eliza Gearty (pictured below) wrote About Money, which opened at Theatre503 in south London on September 6 and has now come to the end of its first run. Eliza has spent the past few years writing while supporting herself in various hospitality, charity fundraising and social care jobs. Now working as a relief support worker in Glasgow, she developed the ideas for her play directly from her own experiences.

About Money is the story of Shaun, a 17-year-old worker at a Glasgow branch of fictional fast food restaurant Tasty’s. With sole responsibility for supporting his eight-year-old sister Sophie, Shaun snaps up every shift his manager offers – even when it means entrusting Sophie’s care to his unreliable friend Eddie.

We observe Shaun as he frets over workplace surveillance and gets pulled up by management over his “attitude”. But however bad things get, Shaun’s tragic flaw is his failure to see that he will always be weaker for as long as he’s alone.

His new colleague and love interest Hannah has a different attitude – having recognised that strike action down south got workers a pay rise. But with a manager who stresses that “harmony in the workplace is very important”, divide and rule tactics soon threaten to drive Shaun and Hannah apart.

Unite national officer Dave Turnbull says such practices explored in the play “sounds exactly like what’s happening at Pizza Express”, where Unite is fighting a management policy of taking 50 per cent of waiters’ tips – under the guise of giving them to kitchen staff. “They’re just playing off the waiting staff against the kitchen staff,” he says. “We’re organising the workers and trying to build solidarity with the back of house staff – we’re saying they should be paid more and not relying on tips.”

Eliza was inspired to write About Money after travelling to London with fellow trade unionists in support of striking McDonald’s workers in 2017. “I went to show solidarity,” she recalls. “We were there waiting for them at the demo in Westminster. I spoke to some of the people who were striking a lot of them were really young, a lot of them hadn’t been in unions before.

“It felt like quite a momentous occasion. That was why I decided to explore one worker’s situation.”

McDonalds workers organised by the Bakers’ Union later went on strike alongside Unite members at TGI Fridays – where the union accused management of using customers’ tips “to subsidise their own poor pay policies”. At Jamie’s Italian, more than 70 former workers were awarded eight weeks of lost wages – approximately £2,000 each – after Unite successfully argued at an employment tribunal that the celebrity chef’s chain had failed to consult over redundancies.

For Emma Tracey, 24, who plays eight-year-old Sophie (pictured below), the play’s themes are close to home. “My dad had a young child when he was 23 and worked at McDonalds actually,” she says. “It was kind of the same situation as in the play – he couldn’t do anything else really. He got asked to leave school and then got asked to leave university. He worked his way and became a manager.

“If trade unions for hospitality had been around in those days that’s something my dad would have jumped on with bells on.”

Emma herself faced exploitation at a bar in Scotland where workers have since been organised by Unite’s Glasgow hospitality branch. “I was the only one under 21 but only just – I was 20. So I got paid £5.60, when everybody else was on £7.50 an hour. And because of that they slammed me with shifts.

“I was on 10-hour shifts 14 days in a row, because I was the cheap labour. Two years later Unite Hospitality started [organising there] – and I was like ‘ah, if that had been around when I was in Glasgow I would have jumped on that’. They’re such an amazing thing because you never think, as a young person, in a hospitality job you just think – ah, this is just the perils of the job, it’s low paid, you just have to say yes to everything. But even as a young person, you don’t have to live like that.”

As much as many hospitality workers might not intend to stay long in the job, that should not stop them from organising for better pay and conditions, Emma says. “I know so many people who started a hospitality job and realise ‘actually I’m good at this and I enjoy it’ so I don’t want to just make it my part-time job – this is my job.’ But they’re still under the circumstances of somebody in a part-time job, getting really bad hours – it’s not just feasible.”

Michael McCardie, 23, who plays Shaun (pictured below), says “just about every single person at my school” worked in the fast food sector while studying. He hits out at “this idea of a job that fits around your school schedule, but then suddenly becomes your schedule. It was just abundant for everyone I grew up with”.

Michael says: “The whole point of working is to provide for this life. But if you’re working all the time what life are you providing for? That’s what so interesting when Shaun meets Hannah, as much as it’s like a cause he’s fighting for, it’s also a life experience he’s not had – with a girl, or with something like a political cause. He just doesn’t have time to think about that because he’s just to think about work and that’s it.

“All those things in the script definitely hit big for me. It needs to be told in a story, and I think this story really tells it well.”

Director Alex Kampfner, whose women-led company 65% Theatre (the name reflects the proportion of women in theatre audiences – but not among playwrights and directors) with Eliza, says: “I don’t think it provides any answers as to what to do, it just shows what happens when a young guy who doesn’t really have the means to look after his sister… is being pulled in all these different directions.”

Playwright Eliza praises union campaigns such as Better than Zero – with which Unite Hospitality works closely in Scotland. But she says it is a huge challenge to organise a generation who have not grown up with unions in the public consciousness. “Our generation came out of access to education, dragging yourself up… rather than making life better for you in the situation that you’re in,” she says of the New Labour and austerity eras. “There’s a lot of indoctrination to unlearn.”

About Money is at Theatre503.

Words and pictures by Conrad Landin

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