You TubeFacebookTwitterflickrGoogle plus
Monday, 25 March 2019 07:46 pm

Behind the smile, your lattes and lagers can have a human toll


HIGH PRICE: Working hospitality can take a high toll on employees. IMAGE: Tess Nichol

HIGH PRICE: Working hospitality can take a high toll on employees. IMAGE: Tess Nichol

(*All names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed, who were worried identifying themselves could mean losing their jobs.)

PAIN prickles from your wrist, up the back of your arm and in between your shoulder-blades, the raw, itchy twang of a strained nerve.

The tray’s heavy, it’s lunch time in the CBD and tables need to be cleared for quick turn-over, as your manager impatiently reminds you.

The wobbly, haphazard stack of lipstick-smudged waterglasses and almost-empty coffee cups has barely been set down before a customer beckons with an impatient flick of the wrist.

You really need to see a chiropractor about that ache in your arm, but it’s hard to justify the expense when you’re only making minimum wage, plus, the busy season is almost over and you’re not likely to be given as many hours in the coming weeks.

Your tummy rumbles -but there’s not time to eat.

This is the reality for a lot of hospitality workers in Wellington, a city whose reputation for café culture comes with a price most people enjoying their daily flat white don’t realise.

Sam* has worked full time in bars and cafes for the last five years and his nose ring, lip piercings and grungy style fit the brief for working at any of Wellington’s hippest establishments.

Sam is a ‘hospo kid’ through and through and says while he loves the work he does, the industry has downsides.

Usually breaks are a luxury, rather than a right.

“You’ll do a 10 hour shift and you might get a 10 minute break if you’re a smoker.”

“I’ve been run pretty into the ground in previous jobs. Doing 10, 11 hour shifts, no breaks, no food provided.”

Sam says he doesn’t mind the long hours now, but he worries about young people just starting out in the industry.

“I think people are scared to say something. They’re scared to bring up their rights. It’s something that needs to be addressed with managers and owners of cafes and bars.

“People aren’t confident to go up to their boss and say I need to sit down for 10 minutes.”

Restaurant Association President Mike Egan doesn’t agree.

“I find that very surprising,” he says.

“A lot of hospitality workers are students and are very aware of their rights.”

Mr Egan adds that it is not in the employers’ best interest to work their staff too hard without breaks anyway, as that would affect their ability to perform.

“We want them to be fresh and onto it.”

However Sam says his former boss at a well-known Cuba Street café would bank on his employees lacking confidence to get away with bending and breaking the law.

“The boss was very threatening, basically like ‘don’t even try to fight me because I’m going to win,” he says with a shrug.

“If your table left without paying you were charged for that, which is actually illegal.”

Another former staff member at the same café says wage-docking was a constant threat.

“All staff, including managers, were intimidated by the owner and lived in fear of walkouts, as they were deducted from our wages,” he says.

After wage-docking at petrol stations made headlines late last year, the public expressed surprise and disgust at low-wage employees being cheated out of their earnings.

In the weeks following, Stuff reported that an Official Information Act request revealed accommodation and food services had 64 complaints under the Wages Protection Act as of November 2014.

It was the industry with the highest number of complaints made in that time period under the Act, which protects against unlawful deduction of wages.

However due to job insecurity many workers choose not to take official action against employers at all.

“There’s that fear of, not being fired as such, but that underlying thought in the back of my mind if I say something will I lose my job, and I can’t lose my job,” says Sam.

The way he emphasises this concern – “I can’t lose my job”- reflects how insecure many low wage hospitality workers feel in their place of work.

Auckland Action Against Poverty co-chair Nadia Abu-Shanab says it is unsurprising hospitality workers feel worried about their jobs.

“There’s a real sense of being disposable and vulnerable – because it’s true.

“Successive National Governments have had a deliberate strategy of maintaining an unemployment rate of around six per cent since the 90s,” she says.

“This is about maintaining a pool of people desperate for work, keeping wages low and disciplining those ‘lucky’ enough to have work.”

Sarah*, a young café worker with more than 10 years’ experience, is one of the ‘lucky’ ones.

She says being exploited by management is one of the biggest issues hospitality workers face.

“A lot of the time if you’re a really good performer you almost get punished for that and are expected to do more as one person,” she says, with a frustrated sigh.

“At one point I was expected to run food, do the till, make sandwiches, serve people, put up food to be taken by waiters.”

“I don’t have 20 arms to do every task,” she says, rolling her eyes.

She says management refused to hire more staff after she told them she couldn’t keep up.

“The systems are under-resourced but if you’re a good performer they just expect you to meet the expectations that they’ve set.”

Sarah’s anger at feeling over worked and under-appreciated is obvious, from the tone of her voice to the way she screws up her nose every time she recalls a frustrating incident.

However she says quitting is not an option for her.

“The reality is that the job market in this country is really dry so you’re often left without options to move.

“It’s not an environment that’s conducive to just quitting.”

She says the thinks her bosses know this too.

“If you said ‘I quit’ they would say go ahead then, there are lots of other people who would want to work here.

“Even though I know that I am invaluable at the place I work now because I can do every single task and work my butt off, they would still just say that to me.”

Unite Union organiser Heleyni Pratley says there are wider social repercussions when workers are too afraid to speak out.

Ms Pratley is animated and passionate when she talks about workers’ rights.
“It turns into a health and safety problem if people don’t want to raise that there’s a problem out the back because they have the potential to have their hours cut.

“It’s really a big problem for society as a whole.”

Unite works to organise fast food workers, a group Ms Pratley says is on the front line of the attack on workers’ rights.

“In terms of the complete casualisation of workforces, we’re seeing this start in McDonalds but it’s starting to creep in to places where you’d consider there to be quite secure work.”

She says Unite wants to show that even young, casual workers can be unionised and she hopes to spark a revival in union membership.

“We see organising fast food as a step to organising the rest of the hospitality industry.”

Unite has led the charge against zero hour contracts in New Zealand, an issue which has received a lot of air time in recent weeks.

“There’s no need for this,” Ms Pratley says firmly.

“They know they’re going to be open on a Monday, they know they’re going to get lots of drunk people on a Saturday night and there’s no reason why they can’t know the hours that are required and give people some notice.”

She says insecure hours affect people’s ability to get the most out of their lives.

“You can’t plan if you don’t know what hours you have to work.

“I think what we’re seeing are people being treated in quite inhumane ways in that they’re slaves to the company,” she says.

By contrast, Mike Egan argues that flexibility and casual contracts works well for some employees.

“In the restaurant industry it’s fair,” he says, adding that many owners work alongside their employees and see them as friends.

“For example, restaurants can be weather dependant and if a big storm came through they might have to ring someone to say don’t come in.”

“For students this can suit them down to the ground – they can get that essay done.”

He says the industry is dynamic and there is no “one size fits all” way to run hospitality businesses.

Ms Pratley says it is useful to view the industry’s current situation through a Marxist lens which prioritises the rights of workers over profit for employers.

“We’ve gotten to this point because the labour movement has been attacked. We’re seeing an increasingly strong neoliberal agenda, so any worker’s action is demonised,” she says.

Neoliberalism is a political framework which favours deregulation and market freedom, a policy which has risen in influence in most Western countries, including New Zealand, over the last 20 years.

Despite this, Ms Pratley says she thinks there is hope for change.

“I believe we’re seeing a really positive fight back.”

“Young people are very positive about unions and I believe we can build back what we’ve lost.”

Chas Muir of the Service and Food Workers Union says workers must unionise if they want to protect their rights.

“If people just say my working conditions are shit, the money’s shit, the boss doesn’t give me my entitlements but I’m not going join a trade union because I might lose my job, that is actually buying into the self-exploitation.

“If you are a dog in a room and the owner comes in and kicks that dog and the dog cowers in the corner, it will always be kicked. If you go into the room and kick the dog and it bites your leg you won’t bloody kick it again,” he says.

“Workers will be exploited if they allow themselves to be exploited.”

Research by Susan Robson, a former employment lawyer now doing a PhD in dispute resolution in employment law, supports Mr Muir’s claims.

“My research shows non-union employees are generally ignorant of their rights, do not know how to complain effectively, and for these reasons feel much more oppressed and powerless in the workplace than union members do.”

However, many of the workers interviewed for this article expressed apathy towards unions.

“The union does jack-all for workers,” says Jane*, who works at a fine-dining restaurant on Courtney Place.

Jane is a typical chef, asking if it’s alright to smoke the moment she sits down to be interviewed.

As well as being heavy smokers, chefs also have a reputation for being hot headed and kitchens are notoriously stressful environments to work in.

The fact that this is considered acceptable, or seen as some kind of regrettable inevitability, needs to change, says Jane.

“Chefs confuse it with passion, like I’m just really passionate, but it’s like no you’re a dick, you’re kind of abusive,” she says with a wry laugh.

She says the ‘suck-it-up’ culture of hospitality enforced by co-workers can be just as damaging to workers as mistreatment by bosses.

“You’re expected to work all these long hours you’re expected to put up with all this bullshit and not make a fuss about it. And as soon as you do you’re weak and complaining.”

Jane isn’t just someone stuck in a job she hates with an axe to grind.

“I love what I do, I love cooking for people and making people happy and on a good night it’s awesome,” she says animatedly andin that moment her eyes light up and she grins: her love of cooking is clear to see.

She stops smiling.

“But at the same time it’s just like sometimes it’s not worth it.”



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

is a Whitireia journalism student
Email this author | All posts by

Leave Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Radio News