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Workers employed within the hospitality industry routinely face tactics from their employers that clearly break the law.

Hospitality sector employers are able to trample on workers’ rights, all too often, with impunity because in almost all circumstances staff either do not know their rights, do not know how to enforce them or judge that simply moving on is easier than confronting their employer and winning what they are due.

While that is certainly a shocking statement, for anyone who has spent any significant period of their life working in the hospitality industry, it is not a surprising one.
While there certainly must be employers in the hospitality industry who fastidiously ensure that wages are paid in-full and on-time, who ensure that staff are treated with dignity and respect in their workplace, who abide by working time regulations, who do not steal tips, who fulfill their obligations to provide a safe working environment and who do not unfairly or constructively dismiss staff - they appear to be rare exceptions.

In the 10 years that I spent working in bars, restaurants, stadiums, arenas, nightclubs and venues, I do not think a single employer that either I or my colleagues had, met the above standard.

Underpayment was, and I suspect still is, utterly routine. Breaks that were never taken would be deducted from hours in order to both save money and to hide the fact that shifts routinely broke working time regulations. Very often these deductions would bring staff under the minimum wage for the hours worked. In other bars and venues, tips would be routinely stolen by supervisors or management.

Too often, predominantly young members of staff would be sexually harassed by colleagues, supervisors or customers. Bullying, including discriminatory bullying on the grounds of race would go un-remarked upon and unreported. Members of staff who would challenge such behaviour often would often find themselves off the rota, DNR’d or otherwise summarily sacked.

Staff would routinely be asked to work in unsafe conditions. On one particular agency shift that I worked at a major February event in Edinburgh I was instructed to wear a uniform of a plain white shirt and personal possessions (including jacket) were checked into a staff cloak room until after the shift. I then discovered I was assigned to a back of house tent where the heaters were to remain switched off to help keep the drinks refrigerated. Only an agreement by all of the bar staff that we would refuse to work secured us access to jackets.

One particularly bad series of shifts at a major event led myself and a handful of other staff to make a collective complaint against a particular manager. The manager had reduced staff members to tears, had threatened to hit a member of staff and had consistently bullied those working in their team.. Months passed after the event without action being taken before I received a cursory email informing me that the manager had denied the accusations and no further action would be taken.

In recent years however something has begun to fundamentally change in the hospitality industry in Scotland. As workers in bars, hotels, restaurants and clubs have begun to organise around, first in campaigns against zero hours contracts and then into fully fledged trade union branches, some of the worst bosses have seen themselves confronted with organised, confident staff who are able to enforce their rights.

The COVID 19 pandemic brought many of these issues into sharp relief. As hospitality businesses closed down and employers negotiated furlough agreements, grants and support from the government, staff organised remotely to demand they received their due. As the industry has re-opened many who had been in hospitality for most of their working lives had found alternatives and employers were in the novel position of struggling to fill positions.

A few years ago forcing staff to pay the bills of customers who had left without paying - as reported last month at Glasgow’s Horse Shoe Bar - would have been grudgingly tolerated by many workers. Today there is a growing awareness of the options available to challenge employers over these practises and a confidence that they will win.

Unite Hospitality has been at the forefront of organising these efforts and has built a support structure and community for staff who want a dignified, secure and respected workplace.

Indeed, often they have been able to go further than challenging one off policies and grievances. This month the Unite Hospitality branch submitted a collective grievance against the owners of 13 bars in Dundee and Glasgow which had been signed by a majority of staff members in the company. Within a few weeks of the collective grievance, months long issues of unpaid wages have been addressed and the employer is desperately seeking to assure staff and customers that complaints will be taken seriously and addressed.

13 years ago I spoke to a colleague in a luxury Glasgow hotel. We had had a staff meeting where we were told that the newly opened hotel was doing brilliant business but that none of the restaurant, bar or events staff were to get regular contracts. My colleague told me that she had been called in on every day off she had had that month and that she was afraid to refuse because without a contract the shifts could stop at any point. I suggested that we should join a union but it was a non-starter. There wasn’t one for us to join and we would simply be sacked for trying.

Today, Unite Hospitality represents the staff in that hotel.

Blog by Martin Lennon

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