Sunday, 23 June 2013

National Waiters' Day

Happy National Waiters' Day, waiters! Only, if you’re a waiter, you won’t be reading this, will you? You’ll be knee-deep in cellar smells, getting your hands dirty halfway through the infamous Sunday deep-clean. Or maybe you’ll be working an AFD (that’s All Fucking Day for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of working in hospitality), and by AFD, we don’t mean 9am ‘til 6pm, we probably mean 9am – midnight, or later still.

And it’s not just long hours and shitty pay (more on that in a mo) we have to deal with when working in hospitality. As a female, there’s the endless ‘EverydaySexism’: I’ve had my arse slapped, been given the card of a man old enough to be my grandfather, and that’s not to mention the endless array of derogatory comments I’ve experienced in the last eight years working in the industry. An ex-colleague of mine was close to the point of getting a restraining order put out on a customer after the harassment she received.

Women aren’t alone: there’s plenty of sexist shit that happens to blokes too. Men are frequently left to manage and lock-up establishments on their own “because they’re men”. Whichever gender you happen to identify as, staff shouldn’t be left on their own to cash-up and lock-up a high turnover site. An owner of a bar where I used to work experienced a bloke trying to smash through a window with a barrel in order to rob the place. Fortunately the owner was brave (read: crazy) enough to grab the nearest, largest knife in the place and yield it in this wannabe-criminal’s direction, leaving the chancer scarpering off into the night. After that, only the owner would take the responsibility of locking up on his own; it shouldn’t have to take an altercation like that to make changes, but at least he acted on it. Many don’t.

You wouldn’t believe some of the shit that goes down when you work in a restaurant or a bar. I’ve been reduced to tears by chefs, “unintentionally” physically assaulted and even been told not to speak to an owner of one establishment I worked in, unless spoken to. At that point, I thought I’d Quantum-Leaped back to the 1800s – when I realised I hadn’t, I got outta that place as fast as I could.

The National Waiters' Day press release says it ‘aims to change the perception of waiting or waitressing as an unskilled job working long hours to one of a job that can offer good skills, can lead to a rewarding careers with good progression routes and great rewards’. Now, I certainly have nothing against its aim – I consider it a worthy one – but whose perception is it planning on changing? In my opinion, it starts from the top.

How do you think we’re supposed to be given respect by customers, if we don’t feel respect? And how are we to feel respected if our employers don’t show us any? Rotas are often drawn up at the last minute, so we’ve no idea when we’re working from one week to the next; hours invariably change: one week it may be 15, the next 65, all depending, of course, on who the flavour of the week is with the GM at any given time. Bonuses in this industry don’t exist, other than in the form of being given enough hours to keep a roof over your head. Ask for a break, and - more often than not – you’ll be scowled at. Someone remind me -  when was it that employment laws stopped applying to the hospitality industry? From the reaction I’ve got any time I’ve stood up for my rights, and asked for the thirty minute break I’m more than entitled to in a 12 hour working day, you’d think said rights never even existed.

So far it reads like this: long hours, often with no guaranteed income (if it’s dead, that’s it – your shift’s cut short, and this could easily happen any time), a constant tirade of abuse from punters and bosses. All that to deal with, but at least we’re well compensated for it, right? Wrong.

Most businesses within hospitality will try and get away with paying national minimum wage – which for over 21s is £6.19 an hour. Try raising a family on that. And don’t get me started on the age discriminatory wage practice which means that many 18 year olds with comparable skills to 21 year olds in the industry will be paid over a quid less, and under FOUR POUNDS an hour if you’re under 18.

Yes, there are tips, but these aren’t guaranteed, and further, depend on the restaurant’s tipping policy. I may be wrong in suggesting that most restaurants have been shamed into ensuring tips go directly to the staff, although I always still check with my waiter or waitress when eating out, just in case. If it’s quiet – which is rarely the fault of the waiting staff – it’s simple: no tips. If you’re (un)lucky enough to work in the ‘exclusive’ bars and restaurants of the world, then yes, you might make up to and over £100 a night in tips, every night, but there’s only so many of them out there (thank God).

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s a reason why we put up with this shit. Sometimes, it’s fun. I’ve encountered some of the most interesting and intelligent people I’ve ever met working in hospitality. I’ve worked with musicians who’ve been on Jools Holland, clever clogs with degrees from Oxford, linguists who can speak their third language better than I can my first, high-profile models, budding documentary-makers, nutritionists and doctors in training, to name but a few.

Note that the aforementioned friends and acquaintances have been working in the industry as a ‘top-up’ to their chosen career path. And why? Because these creative and bright people know that if they want to reimbursed for their expansive skill set, they won’t get very far in hospitality. I’m not suggesting that all jobs in hospitality result in the treatment I’ve mentioned above: I’ve worked in some bars and restaurants where I’ve been paid more than minimum wage, earned a very fair amount of tips on top, been given breaks when needed and even been listened to by my bosses! Woah.  

All I want to say is: yes, a career in hospitality should be considered a profession, and yes, our customers should treat us with the respect we deserve – but we also need that respect from those who thought we were decent enough to give us a job in the first place.