UniteLive's stories of the year - chefs demand better

On the third day of Christmas – Unite calls for a better deal for chefs in fight against excessive working hours

Reading time: 9 min

Every day for the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ this year, UniteLive is running a different story from our top stories of 2021. Today, we hear from Unite rep and chef Kevin Reynolds, who tells of the pressures chefs face in an industry where low pay and excessive hours dominate.

Chefs demand better

When the pandemic first hit, chefs were already burned out.

Excessive working hours – sometimes as many as 70 hours a week – has long been an industry norm. Compounding the problem is the fact that the vast majority of chefs are on salaried contracts and so are not entitled to overtime pay.

The link between excessive working hours and a compromised immune system has long been indisputably and scientifically established – and for far too many chefs in the last year, this link would prove to be fatal.

Over the course of the pandemic, a total of 82 chefs have died after contracting coronavirus according to data from the Office for National Statistics  – this is among the highest Covid-19 death rates out of any occupation in the UK.

These chefs who’ve paid the ultimately price adds yet another devastating layer of loss for this year’s International Workers Memorial Day on Wednesday (April 28).

Unite rep Kevin Reynolds, who’s been working as a chef for twenty years, lays the blame squarely on an excessive working hours’ culture that has spun out of control in an unregulated, mostly non-unionised sector.  

And he says this culture has only become worse amid the pandemic for the many chefs who continued to work in takeaway kitchens as demand for takeaways have exploded during the pandemic.

Takeaway demand explosion

“A chef who’s been working in a takeaway kitchen during the pandemic will typically be going in early in the morning, working flat out all day, every day producing takeaway boxes,” Kevin explained. “They will be working loads of overtime because the demand for takeaway has gone up substantially.”

Working conditions during the pandemic have also deteriorated.

“I recently dealt with a case of a member whose workplace had no Covid risk assessment – the kitchen was poorly ventilated, social distancing was all but ignored, and the employer failed to provide adequate PPE,” Kevin told UniteLive. “The employer was also fraudulently claiming furlough – all his pay slips said he was on furlough when in fact he had been working the whole way through.”

Such cases are become more and more pervasive at a time when so-called ‘dark kitchens’ have expanded significantly during the pandemic. These kitchens make meals for delivery only and are often not tied to any specific restaurant. Deliveroo, for example, operates about 250 such kitchens in eight countries as part of its Deliveroo Editions venture.

Dark kitchens are often located at the back of industrial estates and warehouse complexes, in a series of metal makeshift buildings similar in size to shipping containers. The obscurity of their physical premises matches the mystery of what’s going on inside – they don’t call them ‘dark kitchens’ for nothing, after all.

“Dark kitchens are a relatively new phenomenon that have really grown during the pandemic. Our biggest concerns about these kitchens is they that they fly under the radar – there’s no transparency,” Kevin said. “The member who’d come to me about his employer having no Covid risk assessment in place and fraudulently claiming furlough worked in a dark kitchen.”

But it’s not just dark kitchens that have failed the chefs who’ve worked so hard both before and during the pandemic – even big name restaurants are brazenly treating their loyal workforce with contempt.

Kevin pointed to the recent case of a chef who was working for the prestigious Six by Nico restaurant group making high-end meal boxes for the group’s new ‘makeaway meal’ offshoot, Home-X.

The chef was regularly working unpaid overtime, despite the fact that in his contract, overtime should be paid. When he sent an email to his bosses asking when he would receive the overtime pay, which he calculated to be more than 200 hours, or £2000, he was sacked the very next day.

“I was constantly asked to come in early and go home late because the business was booming, doing thousands of boxes a week,” the chef told the Daily Record. “I just wanted what was fair for me and for the rest of the staff who were working so hard.”

Unite has now taken on this chef’s case and is pursuing an industrial tribunal, claiming the chef faced ‘automatic unfair dismissal and breach of contract’.

‘Chefs have had enough’

Such shocking cases are far from being isolated instances, as a Unite survey this year of more than a thousand chefs revealed.

About one in four chefs said that their employer had failed to take the pandemic seriously, with 63 per cent reporting that they were not consulted on or issued Covid-19 safety guidelines. A third said they believed their employer had actively put them at risk during the pandemic, while half of those surveyed said their bosses took advantage of the pandemic to rewrite their contracts and put them on worse pay, terms and conditions.

For a huge proportion of chefs, they’re at the end of their tether – 40 per cent reported they were considering leaving the trade altogether, citing long hours, insufficient pay and a stressful working environment as the main reasons.

“For many chefs who were furloughed, the pandemic was their first decent time off to rest in years,” Kevin explained. “There’s a strong sense that they don’t want to go back to being paid a relative pittance for working 70 hours a week. Chefs have had enough.”

Unite predicts a huge exodus of chefs, especially among the most experienced, which will lead to major staff shortages – a problem that will be only exacerbated by the end of freedom of movement precipitated by Brexit.

But Kevin and Unite’s hospitality sector strongly believe there is another way – and that starts with changing the excessive hours’ culture.

“The industry is completely unregulated and trade union density has been pretty low among chefs for decades,” Kevin explained. “This has meant that employers have been able to get away with murder. Many chefs aren’t even aware of the Working Time Directive. And those chefs that do try to enforce it end up getting frowned upon by their colleagues because it’s simply this accepted part of the culture.”

‘Better deal for chefs in 2021’

Unite is now calling for a change in the law so that chefs are automatically protected by the Working Time Directive – still in place even though the UK has left the EU – which limits the working week to 48 hours.

“It has become standard practice for hospitality bosses to insert the voluntary ‘opt-out’ from the Working Time Directive into employment contracts,” explained Unite national officer for hospitality Dave Turnbull. “This means that by signing these contracts chefs and other workers automatically ‘opt out’ without actually proactively wanting to do so.

“The employers then underpin this deception, with chefs in particular, by placing them on salaried pay rather than hourly rates,” he added. “This results in excessive hours and, in many cases, underpayment of the minimum wage.

“However, workers who have ‘opted out’ have a legal right to issue written notice that they want to opt back in to limit their average week to 48 hours.

“We are calling all chefs to protect their wellbeing by opting back into the 48 hour maximum working week and that contracts which make a 48 hour ‘opt out’ an employment condition to be outlawed,” Turnbull continued.

“There is a clear case for the legislation to be strengthened to stamp out these abuses across the hospitality sector, which is already suffering from a ‘recruitment and retention’ crisis as restaurants, pubs and bars emerge from the Covid lockdown restrictions.”

Introducing such legislation has never been more important than now, when so many chefs have sacrificed their lives at the altar of an excessive working hours’ culture that is in desperate need of reform.

Unite Hospitality will be holding a minute’s silence on International Workers’ Memorial Day  tomorrow to pay tribute to the chefs who have died during the pandemic and will also host a special Zoom event.

“Part of our event will be to honour the lives lost, but it’s also about fighting for a better deal for chefs in 2021,” Kevin explained. “We will discuss how we can tackle the issues that impact on chefs’ lives – whether that’s poor contracts, excessive overtime, safety at work, or even sexual harassment which has become a huge issue in the industry.”

Above all, Kevin said trade union membership was vital for chefs as he encouraged them to join Unite.

“It’s the only way things will change,” he said. “Chefs have to take ownership in their own hands –the only people who are going to be able to change the long-hours culture and working conditions are the chefs themselves standing up in the workplace and fighting alongside their colleagues to demand better.”

You can find out more information about Unite Hospitality’s Workers Memorial Day Zoom event for chefs in the flyer below.  

By Hajera Blagg

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