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  • Jake O'Brien Murphy

Something about Mai Tais


Ending the free movement of people from Europe couldn’t have come at a worse time for the hospitality industry. Usually, I find statistics so impenetrably boring that when I see them my mind starts to turn in on itself like a sock in a washing machine, so to keep this short and mercifully free of stats and percentiles - migrants, especially from Europe, make up a disproportionate number of those employed in the hospitality sector. The brunt of job losses during the pandemic has, so far, fallen on non-UK workers, which has manifested into an unprecedented exodus. Workers returning to their countries isn’t actually accounted for in the official unemployment figures. That’s because we don’t know just how many of the 1.3 million or so people who have left the country worked in hospitality. But the difficulties most businesses are having in recruitment now suggests it’s a significant enough chunk. So, we’ve ended up in a bit of a bizarro immigration loop-de-loop, to the effect of “Bloody foreigners! Going over there! Leaving our jobs!”.

Normally, being the smug cardigan-wearing liberal that I am, I’d be lapping this particular schadenfreude up like hot soup. But delicious German-compound-words and crunchy little croutons of “I told you so” aside, it’s a worry, mainly because those same hospitality workers that have left are now restricted from returning due to post-Brexit legislation. This means that Brexit has turned the UK into a permanently moored cruise-liner full of the politically illiterate and the socially disaffected - the only constant is that the fishermen are still salty (pun fully intended). Considering all we’ve been through already in the past year the staffing crisis probably seems unremarkable by comparison, but it’s come at the critically worse time possible. Businesses are reeling from aneurysm inducing financial losses and are pinning their short-term hopes on the fanciful idea of a boom in “staycations”. Yet, at the very moment the phoenix was set to rise from the ashes, the capricious nature of fate shot it in the arse with a BB gun that fires irony for bullets. To add insult to injury the BB gun was probably made in Gdansk to strict EU trade standards. Without the ability to hire people the hope of maximising on any potential revenue is diminished and the financial repair of the entire industry drags on risking further job losses and venue closures.

The real scale of the problem won’t even be fully felt until furlough ends in September [2021] and we see just how many people, from overseas or otherwise, return to service. There’s a fair amount of professional and financial anxiety floating around at the moment, which is understandable. The most obvious reason is that after a year of self-reflection and lacto-fermented-zoom-quiz-gender-reveals the prospect of stepping back into kitchens only to be verbally disembowelled by a head chef with a substance abuse problem for £8.48 might seem regressive. I want to make it clear that I am not out to demean or belittle anybody’s livelihood. Just the opposite.

I left my pre-Covid job about halfway through the first lockdown under the short-sighted assumption that it was all almost over. Hercule Poirot I am not. In my defence, I can’t remember the spec to a Mai Tai and I’ve been nominated for awards, so my scant understanding of immunology should be easily forgiven. For those with more foresight than yours truly, newly cleared schedules and the crutch of financial support provided much needed time away from day-to-day service. This gave people cause for pause, which is positive and not only because it rhymes - it provided the latitude to question the underlying structures at play. I’m betting that this opportunity for widespread contemplation will have far-reaching ramifications. That is to say, the staffing crisis may be further aggravated by the unfavourable circumstances workers face, with many opting to re-train and seek work in protected industries. Unfavourable circumstances such as the contentious existence of zero-hour contracts, the duplicitous manipulation of service charge and the toxic culture of glorifying the overworked.

The furlough scheme has represented a real-time paradigm shift and has brought the central contradictions of the industry to light. Primarily, the fallacy that working ungodly hours for less than the living wage, while relying on tips, without job security represents an equitable system. It doesn’t. Many have come to recognise that this enforced mentality of graft prays on otherwise well-meaning aspirations while pertaining to be of a higher order.

This sees the very concept of workplace performance distorted with a kind of kamikaze, all or nothing, significance that imposes the underhanded narrative that hard work takes precedence over everything else. I’m not saying hard work isn’t crucial for career progression, if it was, I’d be busy polishing my jet-skis with gold bricks. What I’m suggesting is that there’s a skewed metric of aspiration and achievement that is embedded in the collective perception. The apparatus that cements this is often commonplace. Take, for example, the pervasive habit of calling the job an “art”, loaded with exactly the kind of romantic doublespeak that financially undermines the profession. Gushing over the “art form” has no tangible benefits in a wage packet. This make-or-break attitude is malleable and easily exploited, only furthering the pernicious idea that those who don’t succeed are singularly responsible for not working hard enough, while ignoring the elephant-sized institutional inequalities.

What is more, any objection to these realities is often shot down with the self-perpetuating myth that “it was worse back in the day”. Well, I say, bollocks to back in the day. I’ve spent lockdown realising my self-worth and looking at pixelated photos of back in the day and it was crammed full of ugly glassware, Sony Ericsson Walkman phones and wankers. (Also, and most importantly, untenable working arrangements). The issue here is that most of us are forced to agree to undesirable terms because there’s little other option or, as is often the case, we were young enough to drink Kool-Aid willingly. Take the mere existence of the term “competitive salary” as evidence for this. I’ve seen this more and more recently as I’ve searched for jobs. The term is a misnomer. The subtext of which is that it’s widely accepted that employers can expect to extract the maximum potential out of staff for the minimum financial investment.

I’m increasingly aware this whole bit is one evolutionary step removed from a Facebook rant. So I’ll leave it at this. I find it interesting that in an industry that fetishises the bartender so self-indulgently, a person could win any number of awards, World Class or Bacardi Legacy, yet still not meet the minimum wage threshold required for EU nationals to work in this country. That’s got to be an issue right? A bartender in this country could be recognised as the best in the world at what they do and still wouldn’t be entitled to guaranteed hours. The callous response to that is “if you don’t like it? Leave it” and it’s easy to see why so many people are.

So, the staffing crisis threatens the perfect storm of challenges this summer. This poses a bit of an existential tug-of-war because I really do love this industry but I’m aware that it is deeply flawed. For the future, I hope that there’s the mutual advancement of the business and the workers, where it isn’t a pipe dream to expect the real living wage, paid rest breaks, equal pay for young workers, guaranteed hours contracts, an end to unpaid trial shifts, proactive sexual assault policy and the end to the glorification of overworking. But what do I know? I can’t even make a Mai Tai.

Originally Published in Discard The Zine: Issue 5

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