'Self-inflicted crisis of industry's own creation'

As London Mayor announces plans to tackle hospitality staff shortages, Unite calls for end to low pay and poor working conditions blighting the industry

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Tackling endemic low pay and poor working conditions in the hospitality sector is absolutely vital in addressing alarming staff shortages in the industry, Unite has said.

Unite made the call after London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced last week (June 3) that he would be using all the powers at his disposal to tackle hospitality staff shortages that threaten to derail the capital’s post-pandemic recovery.

London is especially dependent on the hospitality industry – before the pandemic, of the 3.2m jobs in the sector nationwide, almost one in five were based in the capital, and hospitality constituted 10 per cent of all employment in the city.

But now, the once thriving industry, which may soon be free of all  or at least most Covid-19 restrictions later this month, faces a new hurdle – they simply cannot recruit enough staff.

Industry experts speculate that recent staff shortages in the industry have arisen as a consequence of both Brexit and the pandemic. Post-Brexit immigration restrictions means it is much more difficult to recruit staff from the EU, which is especially dire for the industry in London, where previously half of all hospitality staff are thought to have come from Europe.

Meanwhile, it is understood that many hospitality workers who were either furloughed or made redundant during the pandemic sought opportunities in different sectors and are not intending to return.

Unite says that what’s fuelling this mass exodus from the industry is the fact that many workers have had enough of working in a sector where low pay, long hours and poor working conditions are the norm.

‘Thrown on the scrapheap’

UniteLive spoke to Unite member Kieran Duffy, who, after nearly thirty years working in the industry as a waiter at a Heathrow Airport restaurant, has moved on to pastures new and isn’t looking back.

At the beginning of the pandemic last year, he and his colleagues were furloughed. But then in July, after long hearing rumours that their employer, the Casual Dining Group (CDG), was on the brink of going bust, he and his colleagues finally got the phone call from CDG CEO James Spragg.

“There were 1,900 of who were sacked over a five minute phone call,” he explained. “He said from now your contract with Casual Dining Group is finished – it’s terminated from this instant. It was a real kick in the teeth because I had worked for that company for 18 years and four months.”

Kieran said he began looking for work immediately after being told by his former employer to sign on to Jobseeker’s Allowance, which he knew was far from enough to live on. With the help of his son, who is a support worker, Kieran soon found a job as a mental health care worker.

Although he secured the job very quickly after losing his job at Heathrow, he said lack of communication from his former manager meant he was left waiting for a reference for weeks.

“He couldn’t be bothered,” Kieran explained. “I had relied on him to give me the reference and six weeks later my new employer said they were still waiting. He left me hanging around for about two months. There really was no effort or care on their part – I think once they’d thrown everybody overboard on the scrapheap that was it.”

Kieran said that he felt this lack of respect for staff was endemic in an industry which treats its workers as disposable. And while his take home pay at his new job is less, he feels much more supported in his new role.

“It’s certainly more rewarding than working in my old job at Heathrow,” he said. “While the pay is pretty basic and less than I was earning before, I really enjoy the work and my manager is really caring. At my last job I never had a weekend off. Whereas here my manager really tries to be fair. She tries to accommodate people. That’s been a really big positive for me.”

Industry reform call

Kieran is far from the only hospitality worker who has left the sector after feeling disillusioned with an industry that treats workers so poorly. A recent Unite survey of chefs, for example, found that 40 per cent were considering leaving their trade altogether, citing long hours, insufficient pay and a stressful working environment as the main reasons.

And so as London Mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged to tackle staff and skill shortages in the capital’s hospitality sector, Unite has reiterated its call for reform of the industry.

Part of Khan’s plan announced last week includes support for a ‘coronavirus recovery visa’ which will help bring foreign workers back to the industry, as well as support for more Londoners  to get the training and skills they need for careers in hospitality.

Unite has backed the Mayor’s plans in principle but said they must be accompanied by a commitment to improving pay and conditions in the sector.

Unite national officer with responsibility for hospitality Dave Turnbull said, “The mayor is right to raise this issue of staffing and skills shortages. Tourism and hospitality are the backbone of London’s economy, not just for the workers in hotels, bars and restaurants, but also those in the extensive supply chain. We are ready to work with the Mayor and forward looking employers on a constructive plan for a sustainable sector.

“However, it must be acknowledged that this is largely a self-inflicted crisis of the industry’s own creation,” he added. “In excess of 270,000 skilled and experienced workers were made redundant during the pandemic, at a time when the job retention scheme (JRS) was readily available to keep workers in employment.

“Many furloughed workers went back to their country of origin and have decided not to come back to a sector which previously treated them so badly,” Turnbull continued. “Equally, large numbers, who found temporary work in other sectors, have decided there are better options available to them.

“Employers in the sector need to address the endemic low pay and zero hours culture which blights the industry and makes it such an unattractive option for UK- born workers,” he went on to say.

“Any visas issued for jobs in the sector cannot create a new class of vulnerable workers and must be conditional on pay rates of at least that of the London living wage and guaranteed contractual hours.”

By Hajera Blagg

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