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How did we get here?

Hospitality workers have long-endured long hours and low pay, writes Nick Mosley. Post-lockdown and post-Brexit, restaurants are under unprecedented pressure. With National Hospitality Day on the horizon next month, he asks ‘how did we get here?’. [this story first appeared in the Brighton Argus on Wednesday 8 September 2021]

Those with a vocation and passion for hospitality – whether in the kitchen, front of house or back of house functions – clearly find their roles fulfilling, yet many – particularly young – people have merely regarded such jobs as a temporary post school or college stop gap. A means to earning some quick cash without needing a comprehensive skillset until ‘something better comes along’.

Don’t get me wrong, hospitality can be a very stressful job and its not for everyone; I’ve worked that floor and it’s definitely not for me. Long, anti-social hours accompanied by being on your feet all day and having to deal with the good, the bad and the ugly of the great British public, isn’t for everyone.

This is the opposite to the way that many neighbouring countries see hospitality work, particularly those around the Mediterranean. In these countries, cooking and service is a respectable long-term job option that offers the prospect of career progression and a decent wage. The national and regional governments recognise this through a commitment to skills and training in both purpose-built colleges and vocational placements.

That’s not to say there aren’t catering schools in the UK, it’s just many of them aren’t recognised by the industry as being particularly good nor attracting the right talent.

With the government policy from the late 80s to the present day to encourage young people into degree courses and expand the university sector, more hands-on skills training has been left behind… anyone remember polytechnics? And let’s face it, with average graduate student debt at £35,000, dashing into a hospitality job paid at minimum wage isn’t the most enticing of options.

Our membership of the European Union went a lot of the way to disguise structural employment issues in the industry. Free movement allowed young people from across the continent to come to the UK to live, work and indeed study. Often these young people had professional experience in the sector and certainly didn’t regard working at the coalface of hospitality as socially demeaning. From coffee baristas to soft fruit pickers via hotel housekeeping and cheffing, youngsters moved to Britain with the view to experiencing the country and working for a few years but many then decided to settle and call the UK home.

This was a boon for tourism and hospitality based economies such as Brighton with many hotels being 80% or more staffed by EU citizens. Tourist attractions could rely on seasonal staff who were happy to put in the hours without complaint. Restaurants and bars were made spotless before the crack of dawn by unseen cleaners. Our local farms – and vineyards – were able to get temporary workers to harvest crops exactly when they needed them.

So what went wrong? The government is obviously setting up the Covid pandemic as the fall guy and it most certainly is part of the big picture but not the whole story.

The first UK lockdown with its ‘stay at home’ order bought social panic and economic chaos. Whether running a local independent restaurant or a national chain, company owners wanted to save their own businesses. Many staff were fortunate enough to be put onto the government furlough scheme at the taxpayers expense but many others found themselves unceremoniously laid off reflecting the low social and economic value placed on their jobs.

Lockdown provided those who work in hospitality the chance to reevaluate their live-work balance. And with the prospect of no wage but homes and families to support, many have found new roles in businesses that thrived during lockdown. Chefs put down their aprons and went behind the wheel of a supermarket delivery van, bartenders traded cocktails for childcare roles. A notable example that was relayed to me just this week was a former leading Brighton chef has just taken a job as a prison warder.

For many young people from the EU, as lockdowns dragged on, it made sense to return to their home countries but in doing so they ultimately forfeited their UK residency and work rights as defined by the Withdrawal Agreement. These people aren’t likely to be rushing back any time soon, and pick up any newspaper at the moment and it’s clear to see that Brits aren’t rushing to fill those positions.

Post-Brexit, the government has implemented a new immigration and visa system. In order to achieve a five year work visa there are a number of criteria. As a foreign national, you need to be ‘sponsored’ by a named business and regarded as a skilled worker with a minimum guaranteed income of £25,600 per year which isn’t typically entry level hospitality wages. Helpfully the government has defined what jobs are designated as skilled with – bizarrely – this example quoted on the website home page: “Chefs are eligible for a Skilled Worker visa, but cooks are not” which demonstrates that perhaps the visa rules are ill-thought out and the government doesn’t know its arse from its elbow.

With a lessening pool of hospitality workers, businesses are in a constant struggle to survive. Independent restaurants simply don’t have the staff to operate 6-7 days a week and have gone down to a shorter working week to avoid burn-out. Wages have gone up considerably in a matter of months which is great for disenfranchised workers but an additional strain on employers. One tourism business director reflected to me this summer, businesses typically don’t mind paying staff more but that needs to come with greater commitment and up-skilling.

A Brighton chef-restaurateur told me that he’s now paying via an agency that a chef de partie – with much to still to learn – £35,000 now, compared to £24,000 18 months ago. On the flipside, a long-time Michelin-level chef relayed to me this week that even some of the biggest names in the industry continue to underpay and over demand from their key team members with a head chef at a luxury 20 bedroom hotel property being paid £37,000 for 60 plus hours a week. Historic wage expectations from both employer and employee are in a chaotic state of flux.

Consumers are perhaps already seeing the knock-on effects. Less staff on the floor of businesses, longer wait times for food and drink, more limited menu options and perhaps a lesser quality of food, all accompanied by a rise in prices.

There’s no magic wand to wave to resolve the situation the hospitality industry finds itself in. Issues have been brushed under the carpet for years and there is a general lack of understanding from national and local government, and regional funders such as the Local Enterprise Partnerships. I fear a hard few years ahead and a steep hill to climb before Brighton and Sussex becomes anything close to a centre for hospitality excellence.


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