Hospitality staff: ‘Everywhere I have seen harassment... it’s all swept under the carpet’

Behind well-publicised staff shortages lurks a story of poor working conditions

The first Irish research to be published on working conditions in the hospitality sector  paints a troubling picture. Photograph: iStock

The first Irish research to be published on working conditions in the hospitality sector paints a troubling picture. Photograph: iStock

 

We all know working conditions in hospitality can be difficult – low pay and long, late hours. In some cases it extends well beyond that into breaches of employment law, harassment and bullying, and tip theft. Does it have to be like this, or can it change?

Amid reports this month about staff shortages in hospitality, poor conditions within parts of the sector are also a factor – a problem that existed before Covid-19 struck has become more acute. The first Irish research to be published on working conditions elevates voices rarely heard – those of workers – and paints a troubling picture. But the research also points to how conditions can be improved, levelling the playing pitch for the many good hospitality employers.

Beginnings of normality this week signal a slow road to recovery for a sector hit hard by the pandemic. Many have had to reassess how they do things, how to change for the better. The workers’ voices have been conspicuously absent in the months of discussions and negotiations on reopening, as narrow lobby groups have represented selected business interests.

After years without any solid research on hospitality conditions, two reports come along at once. Though she’s been researching it since 2019, the first phase of Dr Deirdre Curran’s accessible, easy-to-read report on hospitality working conditions, released this month, is timely. The NUI Galway business school lecturer’s report – Inside Out Hospitality: A Study of Working Conditions in the Hospitality Sector in Ireland – sets out to provide evidence of working conditions and recommendations for employers, trade unions and elected representatives.

An older member of bar staff in the restaurant... spoke grossly and suggestively to me regularly – both alone, in front of other staff members and in front of customers

Curran uncovers significant breaches of basic employment rights (contracts, payslips, working hours, with evidence that rights are not always known to employees, nor always upheld by employers). The report also provides testimonies of verbal/psychological/physical abuse and harassment and bullying. Curran also focuses on “employee voice”, or the lack of it: mechanisms for employees to be heard, to air ideas or grievances.

Accessing hospitality workers is a challenge, says the report. And while not claimed as representative (and acknowledging the survey may have been more attractive to those with negative experiences), it highlights issues needing more research. The first-phase research illustrates the lived experience of hospitality workers, including an online anonymous survey of hospitality workers (38 questions, 257 respondents).

Findings on ill-treatment are “stark and somewhat depressing”, with 77 per cent reporting verbal abuse sometimes/often, 64 per cent psychological abuse and 15 per cent physical abuse. Some 55 per cent of respondents witnessed/experienced harassment, with 122 respondents detailing its nature. This covers a depressing litany – tabulated and categorised – of sexual references/comments/innuendo, demeaning tasks, unwanted touching/slapping/grabbing, arrogance/rudeness, victimisation, racist comments/jokes/slurs, belittling of new staff and derogatory comments about physical appearance.

Some research participants’ testimonies make for uncomfortable reading: “Managers always talking down to staff including myself, making staff feel on edge. The hierarchical system was awful, with supervisors etc treating those ‘below’ them terribly.”

“Everywhere I have worked I have seen harassment of different kinds. Bosses harassing staff, chefs harassing staff, serious number of customers harassing young female staff, but it’s all swept under the carpet.”

“An older member of bar staff in the restaurant... spoke grossly and suggestively to me regularly – both alone, in front of other staff members and in front of customers. He consequently felt me up in the restaurant kitchen; the action was met with laughter by all who witnessed it.”

“Much older male colleague kept acting inappropriately with me, would come up behind me in small secluded corners of kitchen/restaurant and tickle me and grab me unnecessarily. [Male boss] was not very sympathetic and... basically made it out to be me with the problem.”

Some 63 per cent of respondents reported witnessing/experiencing bullying, with 133 respondents detailing behaviour from taunting/belittling/making fun, to isolating/ignoring, to humiliation in front of colleagues/customers.

“He would send me emails listing things I did wrong. Worst of all he would cc everyone else in the email so everyone I worked with could see how stupid he thought I was.”

Deirdre Curran of NUI Galway’s school of business and economics whose report Inside-Out Hospitality uncovers significant breaches of basic employment rights and also provides testimonies of verbal/psychological/physical abuse and harassment and bullying
Deirdre Curran of NUI Galway’s school of business and economics whose report Inside-Out Hospitality uncovers significant breaches of basic employment rights and also provides testimonies of verbal/psychological/physical abuse and harassment and bullying

Other testimony describes “cameras in every square inch and we have been informed that some are hidden. The manager has a camera in his office and on his phone, and he texts in from home saying ‘Table 3 haven’t had their starter yet’.” Another observes: “If health inspectors can come in and close the place down because the kitchen counter is cluttered – how can people get away with bullying and harassing staff to the point where they’re out on sick leave?”

Talking about her research, both qualitative and quantitative, Curran says: “There is evidence of breach of employment rights, which are minimum standards. And that’s bad. But what’s worse for me is the evidence of ill treatments, and that is best illustrated by the words of the participants themselves. A big issue is the lack of opportunity for voice in hospitality work, and even a lack of willingness, which again is worse because people feel there’s no point in speaking out.

“As you can see in the report, it’s kind of, what’s the point, nothing’s going to change. Even when people do report incidents, often nothing happens to actually address the situation. But that lack of voice goes beyond the micro level to the macro level, because there have been various task forces and decision-making forums about reopening hospitality, and the worker voice has been silenced at those forums, which was one of the reasons I published the report now.”

But it’s not all misery; respondents also described what they like about working in hospitality, with “interacting with people” a common thread (making friends, learning from different cultures). The satisfaction (and reward) of delivering a great service, learning to deal with challenging customers, working independently, work variety and specialised training also figure.

While Curran describes her substantial research as a litmus test, survey results released this week by Unite the Union are more a snapshot. Interestingly, and despite different samples, their findings on working conditions tally.

Unite’s Hidden Truths: The Reality of Work in Ireland’s Hospitality and Tourism Sector, surveying 291 mostly hotel, bar and restaurant staff from 20 locations in the Republic of Ireland in June 2021, also reports low pay, insecure contracts, poor working practices, bullying and discrimination.

The sector is dominated by low pay, insecure contracts and poor working practices, bullying and discrimination. It’s clear we need to reboot the sector to ensure it provides good jobs

Among the respondents, 56 per cent said they earned less than €12.30 an hour, the living wage; 70 per cent cited a lack of breaks; 75 per cent said they didn’t get Sunday premiums; 50 per cent didn’t get their tips; 72 per cent said their workplace was deliberately understaffed, so workers were overloaded.

In addition, 70 per cent said they had experienced bullying, with up to 55 per cent not reporting incidents for fear of repercussions or because they did not believe that anything would change; 80 per cent said working in hospitality had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing; 52 per cent of respondents believe migrant workers are treated worse than non-migrants; and 65 per cent said they had no work-life balance.

Even with its limited sample, it’s sobering for the sector that of 289 people who answered whether they see any prospect of staying in hospitality long-term, 70.2 per cent did not.

“This exposes patterns in the industry that shouldn’t be ignored by unions or by legislators,” says Unite’s tourism and hospitality co-ordinator, Julia Marciniak, who conducted the survey. “A solid evidence base for what hospitality workers have always known: the sector is dominated by low pay, insecure contracts and poor working practices, bullying and discrimination. It’s clear we need to reboot the sector to ensure it provides good jobs.”

Hospitality is one of Ireland’s largest industrial sectors, contributing €5 billion to the economy. Pre-pandemic, 177,000 people worked in 18,377 Irish hospitality businesses, ranging from local takeaways to five-star hotels. It accounts for 8 per cent of all Irish employment (Hospitality Skills Oversight Group report 2018), it cannot be outsourced or offshored, and its economic benefits are felt in cities and towns throughout the State, Curran says. Some 40 per cent of jobs are seasonal/casual and part-time, with foreign nationals comprising about 30 per cent of the workforce.

‘The only way for our industry to solve its staffing crisis is to hold a mirror up to itself.’ Photograph: iStock
‘The only way for our industry to solve its staffing crisis is to hold a mirror up to itself.’ Photograph: iStock

Solicitor Richard Grogan, who specialises in employment law, says Curran’s research “confirms what the dogs in the street know, that there is significant non-compliance and exploitation by some, and I use the word ‘some’ in the broadest sense. Hospitality is one area where there are really good, but equally really bad employers, in equal measure. Non-compliance with employment law is rampant in hospitality.”

Grogan points to practices such as extended unpaid trial periods “so they get half a week’s work for free”, and where employers state all tips go to the staff, “but that can mean they go to staff as part of their hourly wage, rather than in addition to their hourly wage. Diners should ask.”

But, despite the negative findings, there’s a push to improve treatment of workers. Curran reports good feedback from workers, and positive reaction too from businesses in the sector to the research, many agreeing the industry is in need of change.

One top outlet observed that hospitality is struggling in many ways and “will only deteriorate further if the issues are swept under the carpet and not addressed, highlighted and changed”. But it also believes that “we are moving in the right direction, at a snail’s pace, towards a more positive and professional working environment”.

Conrad Howard, owner of Market Lane Restaurant Group, says: “We operate five restaurants in Cork and appreciate that the only way for our industry to solve its staffing crisis is to hold a mirror up to itself. If we do this, by the time the next phase of Curran’s study is complete, we’ll be in a better place as an industry.”

Curran’s report recommends a Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) campaign on employment rights targeted at hospitality workers, and an education campaign for employers and employees. The Protection of Employee Tips Bill 2017 should be revisited, she says, on foot of tips sometimes being withheld by employers, and the WRC should carry out unnotified inspections. With many workers saying “we don’t know where to go for help” and “what’s the point anyway?”, Curran says trade unions should act on hospitality workers’ openness to membership, and also suggests establishing a national-level Joint Labour Committee/Sectoral Employment Order.

More significantly, perhaps, workers themselves know best how to transform a sector that is finding it increasingly hard to recruit and retain staff. All 257 participants in the research had suggestions for improvement, including:

“More respect towards employees, less BS from company side. As long as budget and profit is before everything, hotels will not be better places.”

“I think there is an issue in every place I have worked with managers and owners being too money-focused. I understand if you don’t want to pay another person if you feel you don’t have to, but no boss of mine has ever listened to me when I explain that it cannot be helped that my customer service will go down if you don’t provide enough staff.”

Well-trained staff leads to better customer service, and well-rested staff leads to higher performance and lower safety risk

“Educate hotel owners and managers in HR and how to treat employees to get the most out of them without pushing them like slaves.”

“More (any) consequences for chefs being belligerent, a more equal balance of power.”

Particularly useful are suggestions arising from Curran’s in-depth interviews with those working in the sector for up to five decades on how to make the sector a better place to work. They pitch for better training for all staff, some of it at an obligatory minimum (it’s telling that only 26 per cent had hospitality qualifications), better wages and pay progression, and minimum standards applying to all establishments.

That some of the suggestions might be regarded by other sectors as basic rights tells its own story: education, monitoring, and enforcement of rights; allowing unions to represent employees’ voices; adhering to proper HR policies and procedures; and proper contracts, with sufficient and predictable hours. They also suggest using bullying and harassment inspectors, better protection from abusive customers, and an apprentice-type alternative to college. Experienced staff stress the importance of respect from the top down, and putting the focus back on excellent service.

Curran makes the business case for paying attention to the terms and conditions of hospitality workers, quite aside from “the moral case or the ethical case, or even the legal case”. She points to the logic:

“Well-trained staff leads to better customer service, and well-rested staff, complying with the rest breaks and holiday legislation, leads to higher performance and lower safety risk. Well-treated staff leads to loyalty... Employee voice in decision-making leads to ownership of those decisions and better ideas... Compliance with employment rights leads to less risk of cases being taken against employers. Having career progression structures in place, and possibly an apprenticeship, leads to loyalty, retention and higher motivation of staff. ”

With awareness and change in the air, the UK chefs’ union Unichef has started a petition calling for the rescinding of Michelin stars and AA rosettes awarded to restaurants where staff are abused.

Curran wants her research to provoke debate and influence policy and practice. “As citizens we interact with the hospitality sector regularly, whether it’s having coffee in a local cafe, dinner in a restaurant, or taking a weekend hotel break. The people working in this sector are related to many of us. They are the people we care about.”

As one worker commented in the research: “The excuse ‘sure that’s the industry’ is not good enough.”

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