In recent weeks, a no-deal or even Johnson-“divergence” deal Brexit leaving far fewer EU-based laws in place in the UK (or Britain, at least) has become less of a distant dystopia and more of a frighteningly impending reality. Workers’ rights are a central area set to be affected, in an intensification of the long-term pre-existing precarity across the workforce.
So what does this mean in practice? How will it affect those already forced to rely on precarious, part-time service sector work, from students with debts to pay off, to migrant workers, ethnic minorities and women? Such work can be deeply exploitative, and catering is no exception, as I learned from personal experience working in the extremely hierarchical and unflinchingly elitist world of the hospitality industry.
Sub-contracting and precarity
As an agency worker in hospitality, the shifts one works generally vary considerably by venue and by client. The prestigious ‘clients’ the agency mentioned are not wealthy individuals throwing parties, but companies – major catering and hospitality firms – who hire workers from various agencies to make up their numbers. One effect of this sub-contracting is that you often don’t know exactly what the event you’ll be working is: the agency’s email will simply tell you the company name and the venue. There’s a disconnect between agency workers and guests they are serving; you are entirely answerable to the larger company which has hired the workers.
There are strict expectations of etiquette in terms of dealing with guests – having a smile consistently plastered on your face, for example, whilst trying to balance a scorching hot, extremely heavy plate of food steadily in each hand and not get burnt. The emphasis here is less on the guests’ actual needs and more on strengthening the companies’ reputation. Bosses are ultimately under no pressure to treat workers with respect and dignity because you are unlikely to see them again after your shift has ended.
You do at least get to choose your own shifts, although the agencies do become persistent in looking to cover cancellations. But for most workers, this is all they can get, and the wages are low, so the advantages of this flexibility don’t extend very far. In fact, while these agencies love claiming that you are ‘choosing your earnings’, in reality, there may be no work available for several weeks on end. You could be calling the office daily, willing to work 16 hours alongside two hours travel time to and from a location outside London, but failing to earn a penny because your services aren’t needed. In fact, workers may be sent home early when no longer required, thus often missing out on several hours’ pay which they had been expecting.
Whilst most catering agency workers are students aged between 18-25, and many are students, a significant minority are older, migrant workers. The hospitality industry exemplifies the precarious, exploitative, low-paid work available to migrants.
The lack of consideration for workers’ fundamental rights looks set only to intensify if the Johnson government gets their way. His Brexit chief, David Frost, has described Brexit as an opportunity to escape the EU’s “heavy labour market regulation”, and criticised Theresa May’s commitment to protect labour rights as part of any ‘level playing field’ Brexit deal. May’s plans were weak enough – but Johnson’s latest ‘plan’ is worse still. We’re now told standards will be allowed to ‘diverge’. As Thompsons solicitors put it: “In plain English, what this really means is that Boris Johnson’s proposals contain no commitment at all to protect… workers’ rights after Brexit, meaning that for workers these proposals are as bad as no-deal.”
The politics of food
The hospitality industry isn’t keen on the EU’s environmental requirements, either. At large events, catering companies generally provide more food than necessary (presumably as numbers can’t always be accurately predicted). Once each course has been served and cleared, excess food is often thrown away – we’re talking significant amounts, not just a few extra bread rolls, but hundreds per shift. There’s little concern for the environment, nor for the homeless people reduced to begging right outside the venues.
As a perk, workers are sometimes allowed to eat leftover food – but often must fight for it. In fact, bosses and managers often display a strange reluctance to let workers eat anything at all – even when they have signed out and officially finished working. Legally, workers working over six hours must be given a break to eat, but catering companies break this law regularly and casually. When (and if) you are eventually given food at the end of your shift, you must be prepared to justify eating, stating how many hours you’ve worked in order to earn this meal.
Class, race and gender
The extreme elitism and lack of racial diversity of these companies is inescapable. I’ve felt the weight of not being white more strongly working in catering than I have in any other volunteering, work or educational setting.
On one shift, my boss insisted on calling the workers by our first names, even though he would probably never see most of us again. He asked me my name practically every time he spoke to me, and each time I patiently repeated it. On about the seventh occasion, finally accepting his own incapability of remembering, he asked what people called me for short, as though everybody I knew had the same difficulty remembering (or pronouncing) my name as he did. Several other – European - workers’ names were a similar length to mine. Our boss pronounced these names on the first try, perhaps unsurprisingly - but most tellingly, never requested that anyone else provide him with a shorter version.
That same shift, a supervisor from the client company leaned over and buttoned the top button of my shirt, just as I was serving someone. This small, strangely dehumanising gesture was a stark revelation of my position: as a prop to look presentable, maintaining the company’s reputation, uncomplaining while my seniors physically tailored me to these expectations. This is the same culture which turns a blind eye to the rampant sexual harassment of women in these industries.
If agency service workers are low down in the catering hierarchy, those doing the most ‘dirty’ jobs – such as cleaning dishes – are the lowest. Managers regularly employ a patronising tone towards these workers, including addressing and referring to middle-aged men as ‘the boys in the back’. Further, roles are assigned to ‘girl’ and ‘boy’ workers based on their (assumed) gender (such as dividing workers into ‘the girls on the food stall’ and ‘the boys on the bar’). Emails from agencies sometimes demand that female staff wear skirts for certain shifts, and even demand ‘female team players’ and ‘male team players’ for the same event – with the latter having longer hours, and thus being paid more. ‘Boys’ are seen as more suited to working behind a bar, which may stay open later than the ‘girls’’ food stalls. This is how the gender pay gap operates in 2019 – not through paying men and women differently for the exact same work, but through loopholes like putting them on shifts of different lengths, adhering to hugely outdated notions of their suitability for different roles. Equal pay rights are needed more than ever - these were originally won domestically, but have been strengthened by a string of additional EU labour rights which a no-deal Brexit would render insecure.
Conventional notions of masculinity and femininity are also imposed on catering agency workers in smaller ways. The specifically gendered and racialised elements of strict clothing regulations are the most noticeable. The assumption that girls’ hair will be long enough to be tied back in a ‘hostess’ bun is typically old-fashioned; more significantly, it is consistently emphasised that boys must be clean shaven, with no exceptions for religious or cultural reasons. These guidelines speak volumes about the kind of people agencies look for – white, with manageable (and unveiled) hair for girls, fitting into conventional Western aesthetic ideals. Given that beards have become symbolic of the racism faced by Muslim men (and those read as such) – which also affects their employment prospects, as exacerbated by the ‘hostile environment’ over the last few years - this emphatic banning sends a discriminatory message all the more clearly.
Essentially, working for a hospitality agency will get you some extra disposable income if you’re a student (although less so if you’re a woman, apparently – can’t count on those bar shifts!) But it’s not viable as a primary occupation. The fact that a significant portion of migrant workers in the UK rely on such unstable work and poor working conditions – including mistreatment – is emblematic of these workers’ broader experiences and the crisis of precarity and exploitation currently pervading the country, which Brexit will only worsen.