When I first arrived in South East London I was taken by my flatmates on a typical tour of the local area. Idly we scanned the nearby parks; fictitiously they remarked on architectural points of interest; frequently expressing their sentimental attachment to particular pubs. Along the way I was also given the informal tour of customer service in the area: who pays minimum wage, who has a high employee turn around, and who continuously takes on bartenders for unpaid trial shifts only to not employ them after. Having worked in customer service my whole young adult life I’d already come to terms with certain degrading aspects of the experience. Forming my own criteria, not to endure with harassing staff members, lack of protection from abusive customers and venues where the tips you earned never cross your palm.
But the expectation of the London Living Wage – and rightly so – further complicates an already trying industry, and you find yourself navigating a new world of gig economy politics. For example, I have quickly learnt to distrust employers when they claim the wage is £9-11phr as many businesses claim that they pay London Living Wage, when in reality they pay minimum wage and use the service charge on the end of your bill to make up the difference. Which of course does not always add up when divided between all staff and factored in those who remove service charge from their bill or having a slow month. Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 may have perfectly incapsulated the discontent of navigating the office world, but we need a new anthem for customer service workers.
As western nations outsource much of its labour to other countries, so much of the work force in the UK now is either in big business or hospitality, changing the nature of our relationship to the production line as well as the make-up of UK workforce. Working in a restaurant I feel as if my ‘contribution to society’ is nothing more than the facilitation of further consumption.
With the change in workforce there too has been a regression in standards. Speed and efficiency rule the roost, as technology makes promises that cannot be kept by human staff. Pressure is put on staff to be constantly available to the customer, with few establishments having weekly days of closure. Uninterrupted manned labour has been brought back to reality, only now workers are manning the bar, the coffee machine, and the gourmet burger counter. Fights that have already been fought and won are having to be fought again.
The British labour movement and similar contingencies across the Atlantic, are predominantly to thank for the unionising of many sectors of work, as well as the ratification of the 40hr working week. In an overly-generous previewing article for Ian Mckellen’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, the actor gushed unironically over the discovery of his great-grandfather’s hand helping to “invent the weekend”. Whilst proud of his ancestor, Mckellen does not extend the same generosity to his staff at the Grapes, who are poorly treated with few weekends off and only given minimum wage.
Whilst consistently treated poorly, those in hospitality are the least likely to unionise, meaning employers have little incentive to provide decent standards. As many of those in customer service have seen it as temporary job, there is a tendency to endure rather than to resist. Of course, the temporary nature of the gig economy should not prevent staff from receiving fair treatment, and with many companies offering 0% contracts, workers are uncertain of schedules and cannot find more permanent hours. Therefore, many more of us are finding ourselves stuck in roles unsure of how many hours we will receive or when we’ll be expected to work.
But all is not lost! In recent years those in customer service have begun to organise at national levels. Deliveroo workers have gone on strike twice since 2016 over pay schemes, which Labour shadow business secretary stated was a return to Victorian Britain. Other workers for Wetherspoons, McDonalds and TGIF have recently endeavoured to strike over low pay, and understaffed and long shifts. Many feel as though more than half of their monthly wage ends up on rent with little left over to live on. Unfortunately, their efforts have not all been successful as many of the companies have defended their pay rates and UberEats in a drastically unjust move fired all workers who took part in strike action.
On a local level, workers at the Royal Albert pub on New Cross Road – owned by pub chain ‘Antic’ – have recently joined Unite to contest their conditions. The group, now containing 100 staff with grievances, are presently asking for double time over Christmas and New Year as they are fully aware of how much the pubs make over this time. But in a long article on Novara, it is clear they have long-term goals too, wanting the owners to start paying London Living Wage as well as implementing de-escalation training to insure their staff’s safety from plausible harassment.
It is true that more staff from various hospitality fields are organising for better conditions, however these conditions should not be the sole responsibility of individual establishments. Whilst some businesses offer higher than minimum or living wage there are still many more that don’t, and those should be publicly discouraged. Although, if you avoided all the establishments in the South East that do not attempt to in some way support their staff’s living cost, then you might end up only ever visiting the Granby.
Words, Billie Walker – @queen.feta
Illustration, Sydney Diack – @flappyhowserton
Printed in the Eighty-Sixth Smiths’ Publication