‘Show us your boobs and you’ll get a tip’: An Irish waitress’s life

Irish restaurant and hotel staff share their experiences of sexual harassment

Helen is a part-time waitress. At an American-style diner in a northern town last year she was regularly harassed by two chefs. The stream of comments became so distressing that she started to note them in her phone. Among those notes are the following.

“I love watching you walk away.” “Your jeans look like they’ve been sprayed on.” “You are not a real girl without tits.” “You probably lost your virginity after a boy put a few drops of something in your drink.” “That’s the size Helen likes it.” (Referring to a sausage on a plate.) “I’d split you in half.”

There are first names and dates on some remarks; some comments are on consecutive days.

I was asked by customers to show them my boobs and I'd get a tip. When I told the customer to leave me alone, my manager went back round to the men and started laughing, saying, 'Sure, we all need a bit of eye candy, don't we, lads?'

When Helen reported the harassment, she and the chefs were suspended for two weeks while the company looked into what had happened. Then she was asked by solicitor’s letter to a meeting with the two chefs. “We basically had to say sorry [to each other] and get on with it.”


They made her feel confused, she says, and she ultimately quit. “They more or less pushed me out of the company. The two chefs got their jobs back and the place went back to normal.”

Helen is a college student. She was 19 when these episodes occurred, and it wasn’t the first time she had been harassed in the hospitality industry.

When she was 17 she worked in a bar. “I was forced to drive drunk men home that I didn’t know, or else I would be fired.” It was her first job, and she did what she was told, she says.

“I was also asked by customers to show them my boobs and I’d get a tip. When I told the customer to leave me alone, my manager told me to never speak to customers like that. He went back round to the men and started laughing, saying, ‘Sure, we all need a bit of eye candy, don’t we, lads?’”

Lorraine, who has worked at several restaurants and hotels, says she has been sexually harassed by customers, owners, managers and colleagues. “There’s a lot of drinking; it’s late at night.”

She describes an incident at central Dublin restaurant where she worked for four years. A friend of the manager was dining, and Lorraine was told, “He’s a VIP: be careful; be nice.” Lorraine took his order and asked, “Anything else I can do?” “Yes, you can suck my d**k,” he replied.

What could she do, she asks. “Go to my boss and say the VIP said this? He was older than me; he could have been my father.” So she tried to ignore it, “pretend I didn’t hear”.

At a hotel a colleague deliberately touched Lorraine every time he passed her, holding her by the waist and moving her. When she asked him to stop “he said, ‘Oh, nobody can touch you! You’re crazy.’ He’d make a big deal of circling around me. He was trying to treat it as normal, as if I was this crazy woman.”

She says people don’t want to say they have experienced sexual harassment; “you don’t want to be a victim.” But “it starts to be the norm – of course people will make a move on you in hospitality.”

The man made his way behind the bar and ran his hands up and down me, pushing me into the wall. Some of my senior colleagues, during the rest of the service, started to make sexist jokes about smacking girls on the ass during sex

Alice worked in a fine-dining restaurant for several years. She describes an incident one busy Christmas. “I had made jokes and got on [well] with a large male customer. He was friendly with the owner. I was very busy, on the phone, and attempting to talk to customers, fetching bags for them. The man made his way behind the bar and ran his hands up and down me, pushing me into the wall... in front of the customers I was trying to help, and some of my senior colleagues.

“Those same colleagues then, during the rest of the service, started to make sexist jokes loudly around me, about smacking girls on the ass during sex. I became angry and said, ‘Could you just stop! You saw what happened to me tonight and you feel you can talk around me like this.’

“I was told to calm down. I was told by my senior barman that ‘You’re a pretty girl behind a bar, that sort of stuff is just going to happen to you...’ I can still feel my face burning hot, and... the shock of hearing that comment from my colleague, whom I considered a protective work friend.”

Aisling, an Irish waiter in her 20s, describes being called into the kitchen by the head chef when three other male chefs were present. She was told to get some large dinner plates from the bottom of a cupboard. When she was on her knees at the cupboard, the head chef came over and dropped his fly at the level of her head. There was uproarious laughter from the other men, she says.

If a bystander intervenes it can backfire. Gregor, a chef in his 40s from eastern Europe, describes how the “head chef is always making sexual remarks. So one time I stood up for my colleague and got into an argument with the head chef. I end up in the HR office with [the] owner’s sister,” who had no HR background. “The whole incident was turned against me, and, with no further investigation, all was swept off the table.”

Gregor was dismissed a few months later.

‘Part of the industry’

Some of these incidents were uncovered by Dr Deirdre Curran of NUI Galway’s school of business and economics. Curran is working on a large-scale research initiative about the treatment of employees in hospitality. The research is both quantitative and qualitative, and the emerging findings provide a snapshot of working conditions for some people.

The initial online survey of 257 workers, who responded to an invitation to take part, asked about terms and conditions, treatment at work, tips, training, promotion and HR practices. Curran has also conducted in-depth interviews with a smaller number of respondents (some of whom have also spoken to us). The research is ongoing, and Curran is still conducting individual interviews.

Awareness of sexual harassment may have increased with the #MeToo movement, but the hospitality industry doesn’t appear to have woken up. When Curran presented interim findings at this month’s Siptu conference, in Cork, there was some shock among the audience.

A striking element is the extent of harassment and bullying reported, specifically sexual harassment. Seventy-six per cent of Curran’s voluntary respondents said they had “sometimes” or “often” experienced verbal abuse, 64 per cent reported psychological abuse, and 15 per cent reported physical abuse. More than half said they had witnessed or experienced harassment, not only sexual but also harassment based on age or race.

The survey covers roles across hospitality: housekeeper, receptionist, waiter, manager, chef, bartender, and more. In all these areas sexual harassment is prevalent, says Curran.

Both the Restaurants Association of Ireland and the Irish Hotels Federation reject Curran’s findings and deny there is widespread sexual harassment or ill-treatment in their sectors. Those who responded to the survey, however, paint a different picture.

Almost three-quarters of the interviewees had worked in hospitality for more than three years. More than half were permanent. Almost two-thirds were women, and 16 per cent were foreign. They gave many descriptions of incidents at work. Here are some of them.

“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. It’s part of the industry.”

One survey respondent says: “The chef constantly talks about all the female servers in both English and Polish and makes sexual references about them and is always stroking the female supervisors.”

One owner had a reputation for running into the women's toilets during lock-ins, where he 'pulled his pants down, grabbed his man bits and shouted, 'Who wants this?"

Many describe “often unwanted attention from male owners”, “customers shouting sexual references towards me because I am a woman” or “lewd comments, grabbing of my ass”.

Another staff member reports: “I was told to suck my manager’s penis because I could not bring the lemons fast enough.”

One observes: “Sexual harassment is a given. Most of it will come from the customers. Some from managers, but not often.”

And another young woman says: “An older member of bar staff in the restaurant acted inappropriately towards me. He spoke grossly and suggestively to me regularly – alone, in front of other staff members and in front of customers. He felt me up in the kitchen. The action was met with laughter by all who witnessed it.”

Another who spoke to The Irish Times describes working in a new bar and restaurant in the midlands. When she was off duty the owner would ask her to serve his friends, “so they would have something nice to look at behind the bar”. He had a reputation for running into the women’s toilets during lock-ins, where he “pulled his pants down, grabbed his man bits and shouted at girls, ‘Who wants this?’”

In most cases, harassment was by someone in a position of power: an owner, manager, chef or customer, says Curran. She asked respondents to whom they reported abuse and “overwhelmingly the answer was ‘nobody’” – usually because of “fear or nothing will change, or I left the job”. Of those who did report an incident, only 15 per cent said action had been taken.

Our friends and family

Most Irish people interact with the hospitality industry regularly, whether it’s having a coffee and a bun in a local cafe, having dinner in a restaurant or taking a weekend hotel break. The people working in these businesses are our family, our friends, ourselves.

About 177,000 people work in 18,377 Irish hospitality businesses, from local fast-food joints to fine dining to hotels. Accommodation and food services account for 8 per cent of employment in the Irish economy, according to the 2018 report of the Hospitality Skills Oversight Group. It is also a key part of the tourism industry.

The work can involve long or antisocial hours, with hard physical work and lower pay than other sectors. Yet there is little research into the conditions of the thousands of people working in the hospitality sector.

I have been researching for three decades and never before conducted research that has kept me awake at night. These people are crying out for a voice and protection

Deirdre Curran’s work reveals that behind the scenes is a hidden world of poor work practices, broken employment law, tip theft, harassment and bullying, including degrading treatment of workers.

Her motivation is to highlight working conditions of hospitality workers and promote positive change. She has spent more than 20 years teaching employment relations to thousands of students at NUI Galway. “We study the relationship between workers and employers, an imbalanced power relationship... While that is a fact and not necessarily a problem, sometimes workers need to protect themselves from abuses of such power.”

Curran says the conditions she is hearing about during her interviews are worse than they have ever been. “I have been researching for three decades and never [before] conducted research that has kept me awake at night. These people are crying out for a voice and protection.”

There are two important things to note about her research.

The first is that, statistically, surveys with self-selecting participants tend not to reflect the wider population – in this case that of the overall hospitality industry – as accurately as larger surveys with randomly chosen participants. So Curran’s research does not mean staff are treated badly in every outlet, or even most, but it does indicate a significant and systemic problem.

“I would not claim that the findings are representative – rather, indicative,” she says. But “given the difficulty accessing hospitality staff, the methods used are valid and stand up to academic scrutiny. As an initial study this research, at the very least, points to the need for further exploration of the issues.”

Second, just 16 per cent of those who responded to her survey were born outside Ireland, which Curran knows is an under-representation of foreign nationals in hospitality.

Master-servant mentality

Julia Marciniak is a former waitress at the Ivy in Dublin, among several other restaurants. Originally from Poland, she has previously spoken to The Irish Times about tipping and service charges at the Ivy, and has taken an unfair dismissal case against that restaurant, over losing her job after joining a union. (There is no suggestion that any of the kinds of incidents detailed in this article have occurred at the Ivy.)

Marciniak, who now works at the Unite union, and took part in Curran’s survey, says many foreigners lack the language skills to take part in such research. Commenting on the 55 per cent in this survey who report experiencing harassment, Marciniak says: “I think it’s more. And people don’t know the definition of sexual harassment. They think you need to be touched for it to be harassment.”

Restaurant, cafe and hotel businesses are unusually open to ill-treatment of workers. The industry overwhelmingly involves fragmented, small establishments, often with owner-managers who are passionate about food but not necessarily trained to manage people. It is characterised by a hierarchical structure, with bouts of intense pressure in a competitive, high-risk market. The low-paid, low-skilled and often non-unionised workforce is bottom-heavy with women and migrants. A master-servant mentality is inherent, says Curran, and there is relatively little regulation.

Mary Farrell is a researcher and a working chef, with an in-depth understanding of the industry having worked in restaurant management for almost 30 years. She has just finished a PhD on gender inequality in the Irish chef profession, including a national gender-equality survey of chefs.

It’s a worldwide problem, Farrell points out. “More sexual-harassment claims in the US are filed in the restaurant industry than in any other,” she says. Surveys across 39 US states found unwanted sexual behaviour and harassment were experienced by 60 per cent of women and 46 per cent of men. In Nordic countries, too, sexual harassment is widespread in hospitality, she says.

In Farrell’s Irish research, conducted through the school of culinary arts and food technology at Technological University Dublin, a picture emerges of male chefs using belittling and sexual comments towards female colleagues.

More than half of women chefs ranked “challenging sexist comments and innuendos” as very important in addressing gender inequality in professional kitchens, and 65 per cent called for a chefs’ code of conduct.

Lots of extremely talented female chefs in Ireland leave the profession over the constant sexual harassment and degradation of women in the kitchen

The normalisation of sexual harassment is a theme in her research. A comment from a young chef de partie in an industrial-catering kitchen is typical of what Farrell’s research uncovered: “As a female chef you are seen from the outset as less capable. In order to be seen as an equal you must work harder and produce better food than a male chef... Lots of extremely talented female chefs in Ireland leave the profession over the constant sexual harassment and degradation of women in the kitchen.”

The hierarchical “brigade system” of professional kitchens is at the root of many of the problems, Farrell says, and a work culture of aggression, bullying and sexual harassment is “expected” in kitchens.

In this scenario, legal protections of workers’ rights seem abstract and ineffectual, and many women chefs feel disempowered. These unequal power relationships lead to repeated abuse, she says. Sexual harassment becomes normalised and is not taken seriously by leadership, resulting in silence or compliance.

Farrell understands the difficulties of tackling bullying and sexual harassment in kitchens and is “unconvinced by voluntary codes of conduct or light-touch regulation in the face of any aggressively market-driven industry”. She is seeking funding to research how to change kitchen culture.

Sexual harassment is only one element of a wider bullying culture. Deirdre Curran told the Oireachtas Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection this month that when Minister for Employment Regina Doherty “said on national radio that employers in the hospitality sector, in the main, treated their staff the way one would like members of one’s family to be treated, it was very frustrating, as she had no evidence to support that statement... Until recently we have had very little evidence to refute” such statements.

Curran’s research is a first step. Some hotels and restaurants are great employers, but the testimonies show that others can be a very dysfunctional “family” indeed. Common issues include poor terms of employment, unclear conditions, lack of respect, and ill-treatment by managers or owners, colleagues and customers. There is also often no human-resources function or system to handle complaints.

‘A complete tyrant’

One respondent in Curran’s research says: “The general manager was a complete tyrant where he’d regularly physically and verbally abuse his staff. One example I personally experienced... I couldn’t find a water jug, and he grabbed me by my arm and forcefully dragged me across the kitchen, yelling [that] if I pulled my head out of my arse and actually looked for one I’d find it. There were no jugs.”

Another reports “excessive giving-out over minor things, particularly with younger staff in their teens. Yelling, swearing, name-calling as well. Also comments with degrading sexual innuendo.”

The power dynamic is striking. “Once a manager in a hotel I was working in made us get down on our hands and knees and ‘clean’ the legs of the tables when it was quiet and no one was in the place. Very intimidating and degrading as she stood over us.”

Managers and those in authority in hotels and bars can take advantage of younger ones coming in. It's so prevalent. There's often a social side, and late nights working, and drinks afterwards

Testimonies detail “constant aggression, intimidation and verbal abuse in kitchens”; “threats from hotel management that you may lose your job – in front of peers”.

A hotel night porter in his 60s describes being regularly undermined and belittled, being called “that useless f***er”, and being publicly shouted at in front of guests.

Another recounts: “The hierarchical system was awful, with supervisors etc treating those ‘below’ them terribly. Similarly, I heard many racist slurs and jokes, mostly aimed at Irish staff from foreign management.”

Another was refused permission to “leave work when my partner had a miscarriage, told I had nobody to cover me. I was reprimanded the next day for being in a bad mood.”

‘Late nights’

Marian is one of several experienced hospitality workers Curran has interviewed in-depth. In her mid-50s, she has worked in hotels most of her life and is now a part-time receptionist in a southern hotel, “working my way down from management”.

Marian has seen lots of shouting, abuse and inappropriate sexual behaviour, she says. “There’s general harassment and bullying across the board in hotels; people think you have to get used to it.”

She talks about a hotel manager in the industry who is well known for rubbing up against girls; she and other staff had to devise strategies to avoid being near him. “The young staff were disgusted but afraid of him.” Marian tried to ensure he wasn’t alone in an office with a young staff member, “or I’d come in and find him on top of her”.

Sexual harassment has reduced in hotels, she says, but “managers and those in authority in hotels and bars can take advantage of younger ones coming in. It’s so prevalent. There’s often a social side, and late nights working, and drinks afterwards.”

But conditions generally have worsened. There are fewer full-time positions, skills and training are low, and staff turnover is high, she says. “People are running around like headless chickens. If staff were trained and paid a proper living wage, one good skilled person could be as good as three bad people.”

As things stand, workers have to be available for flexible, changing rosters, but there’s no flexibility when they need time off – “the rota goes all one-way,” she says. “It’s like being a doctor on call, but on minimum wages. There’s a lot of exploitation, and people don’t know their rights. Many of those are not from Ireland, and don’t know any different.”

Unions could undoubtedly help, but “service-industry managers and owners have a dread of unions”.

Is there really a problem?

Ill-treatment and harassment of hospitality workers seem particularly hard to deal with. Whose job is it to police these?

The Restaurants Association of Ireland and the Irish Hotels Federation represent business interests in the industry.

In a statement to The Irish Times, the hotels federation disagrees with suggestions of a culture of ill-treatment in hospitality. It says: “Irish hotels have a well-earned reputation for excellence as employers and are committed to best practice employment standards in looking after their employees.”

The federation says that the people employed in the wider Irish tourism and hospitality industry are among the best protected in Europe, and that all Irish employees are “protected by over 50 separate pieces of employment legislation”. Compliance is overseen and monitored by the Workplace Relations Commission, the hotels organisation points out. “These rights are promoted and rigorously adhered to across the hotels sector, and any suggestion otherwise is without foundation.”

The Restaurants Association of Ireland recommends that any employee who feels mistreated should immediately report their grievance to the Workplace Relations Commission or the Garda without fear of retribution

The restaurant association also made a statement to The Irish Times in relation to this article. It rejects Curran’s assertion of widespread sexual harassment in Irish hospitality. Its chief executive, Adrian Cummins, points out that Curran’s research is not complete and “contests the manner in which the research was conducted”.

Any case of sexual harassment at work, he says, is of grave concern, “and under Irish law any employee in any business, in any part of Ireland, has the right to report such incidents to the gardaí and the WRC.” Curran’s research shows that no case of sexual harassment was reported to the gardaí or to the commission. “We as an organisation recommend wholeheartedly that any employee that feels mistreated in any manner should immediately report their grievance to the WRC or gardaí without fear of retribution.”

Curran says that most catering workers with grievances do not take them to the Workplace Relations Commission because “they’re vulnerable, they don’t know their rights. So they don’t tell anybody.”

Unions represent a way to support staff rights, but there is much resistance from employers, and sometimes fear from workers too. Union fees can be a barrier for low-paid workers. Since the issue of unfair handling of tips hit public consciousness last year, there has been a concerted drive by Unite, Mandate and Siptu to sign up hospitality members and organise labour, offering some hope of change in the sector.

Understanding the problem is vital, which is where research such as Deirdre Curran’s at NUI Galway and Mary Farrell’s at TUD come in.

What can be done?

Curran asks workers what they would do to improve conditions. Every respondent has practical suggestions. These include basic fairness, respect and clear communication, and fair and transparent tip distribution.

Many want a living wage: “Ireland’s hospitality sector has been brought down to the point that employers try to get the most work out of employees for as little money as possible,” says one respondent.

Other points that come up again and again include reasonable breaks and clear finishing times; compulsory written contracts with clarity about terms and conditions; more notice of rosters; sharing heavy lifting; compensation for weekend and night work; career advancement; consequences for bullying; rostering sufficient staff; trade unions stepping in.

Imaginative ideas include more consideration for staff when designing workspaces, and an award for best human-resources practices in the hospitality sector.

It's very disheartening and depressing. You feel subhuman and not a part of real society. The excuse 'Sure, that's the industry' is not good enough

The lack of training and skills, among both staff and management, comes up frequently. Seventy-four per cent of respondents in Curran’s research have no hospitality-related qualifications, despite the existence of several Irish culinary and hotel management schools. In this industry casual employment is common, and managers may have risen through the ranks without training.

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

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

“I can see both sides, but hospitality is frustrating when you’re expected to bend over backwards for people but don’t have any time to do it, and you’re only getting basic pay at the end of it.”

For another worker, making excuses for bullying and sexual harassment is not acceptable: “It’s very disheartening and depressing. You feel subhuman and not a part of real society. The excuse ‘Sure, that’s the industry’ is not good enough.”

And, finally, a lesson for customers, in their interactions with young, vulnerable, foreign or female restaurant staff: “Everyone should have to work in hospitality at some stage in their life so they understand and aren’t so rude and mean to hospitality staff.”

Some names have been changed

Email dfalvey@irishtimes.com or tweet @deirdrefalveyIT

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey is a features and arts writer at The Irish Times