At the end of 2009, I signed on as unemployed for eight weeks. I was trying to save up money so I could afford to go to University and had taken a gap year after secondary to relax for a bit before getting a job after a fairly hellish few years of education. I had no driving license, and was consistently rejected for being “overqualified” for jobs I applied for, if I even got an explanation. I stayed 9 miles away from the nearest city, and looked barely a day over 15, so job hunting was a fairly bleak affair. As it coincided with a fairly brutal winter in 09/10, I was also forced to miss a couple of signing-on appointments due to the precarious nature of rural public transportation when the snow arrived, much to the ire of those supposed to assist me in the job of finding work.
Apart from hours of standing in town waiting for buses to turn up so I could get home, my prevailing memories of the whole experience involved being sat in a waiting room, overhearing bleak stories of people being unable to afford to make phone calls to prospective employers or being too poor to buy food. When eventually I talked to an “advisor”, I was berated for my failure to get a job and made to feel like a parasite because I’d the gall to claim £50 a week for a little independence whilst I tried to find a job to save for University. Again, this was in late 2009, the last months of Gordon Brown’s Labour Government.
Eventually, after weeks of phonecalls and growing desperation, I stumbled into my first job. A mere 15 minute walk from my house, the role was a mixture of kitchen porter (pot scrubber, dish washer, call it what you will), sales assistant, and waiting staff. I couldn’t have asked for a more convenient job to start with in terms of “transferable skills”. I worked there for around two years, earning just above minimum wage, frequently working 50+ hour weeks as is par for the course in hospitality. I was provided with free food for lunch and dinner, and, unlike many in hospitality, got paid breaks of 10 minutes every four hours, or half an hour for shifts longer than 9 hours. I somehow balanced working there with my University education.
As far as kitchen jobs go, I was well treated and worked with a great bunch of people (although of course I still have a few horror stories)- my experience was overwhelmingly positive. Tips were shared amongst restaurant staff based on hours worked and I had a sound, understanding boss. I enjoyed the work to such an extent I kept it even when I left to study in Edinburgh, resulting in a frankly ludicrous schedule whereby I would be in University Monday-Friday, and would commute back to Perth Friday nights. I’d then work 18 hours over the weekend, before going back to Edinburgh to be in Uni again on Monday. I did this for the best part of a year before reverting to just working on holidays due to sheer exhaustion. I had to work because what savings I had were wiped out within one week as an entire semester’s rent had to be paid up front when we got to University Halls.
Out of necessity, in second year I found a minimum-wage job at a restaurant in Edinburgh and found out just how lucky I’d previously been in the idyllic setting of a rural Perthshire restaurant. In the bowels of a city centre Edinburgh eatery, everything changed. Everything that could go wrong, at some point went wrong. The company I worked for failed to sort out my tax, despite me repeatedly requesting they do so, and so I had to wait for my P46 until I could sort out my tax myself. This meant I was left with about £30 a week to live off of, deducting Edinburgh city centre rents and bills. The company waited until literally the last legal day permissible before handing out P46es, meanwhile, at one point, I had to borrow £20 from my father – who had recently been made redundant- to cover rent and racked up credit card debt while hundreds of pounds sat in overpaid tax that I couldn’t touch because of the management’s incompetence. I had to rely on Heriot-Watt’s discretionary fund after SAAS stopped for the summer or I wouldn’t make rent.
In my first week, my cover for the evening shift never turned up, resulting in me working a fifteen-and-a-half-hour shift with no breaks (from 08:00AM to 11:30PM, in case you were wondering). I wasn’t paid for breaks – because I didn’t get any – and I don’t smoke, so I never got any chance to even sit down. If I slowed down I would get disciplined and risk the ire of the head chef which, being on a zero-hour contract, I couldn’t afford to risk. Tips were taken as a percentage of what the serving staff got, then allocated ad hoc by the head chef. In a month, they could get in the scale of hundreds of pounds, whereas the kitchen porters would get about £20 if the chefs were feeling generous. It was a running joke and the chefs would laugh at us behind our backs over it. Getting fed was entirely at the head chef/sous chef’s discretion, and if it was busy you would have to wait for the end of the shift and pray there were leftovers.
For much of the time I worked there, the company didn’t keep track of the hours the KPs worked after closing and so there would be occasions where, after a busy night, one would have to work until around 01:00 clearing up the kitchen, only to be paid until 23:00. Eventually the company introduced key fobs for the staff to sign in and out, but even then there were instances of staff being underpaid. Zero-hour contracts were used as a tool of discipline – fall out with the manager, or let performance slip, and you lost hours. Take a day off ill and you simply lost the day’s wage, and probably some hours in the future in retribution.
In my second year, I was literally in a “work to eat” situation, so consider this when next you eat at a restaurant – there’s every chance a member of staff is working whilst ill because they cannot afford not to work that day. This once culminated in me coming out of Haymarket station and something in my foot “tearing” due to working on it after an injury. I had to get a taxi to Edinburgh Western so it could get x-rayed and the injury caused me to miss two shifts and a week of university. I had to work at about 16 hours a week at the time to top up SAAS, all while doing a full time degree, just to survive. I had almost zero disposable income after bills, so an injury cost me dearly -not just physically but financially.
One particularly awful day was the Sunday before I was due to return to University after summer; two staff had called in sick, and so we were short-staffed. The restaurant had a promotion on so the place was rammed when I got in. As well as dish washing, cleaning, and running for supplies from a local supermarket when resources were low, the KPs were expected to make and serve desserts. Over the course of the day, we ran out of just about everything resulting in a panicked dash to find meringue nests at 9PM as the final tables were sitting down to eat. Serving was chaotic, with the same orders being sent “away” multiple times, resulting in confusion and aggravation between sections of the restaurant. Food was served late, or poorly cooked and presented. At closing, me and one other KP (with the odd helping hand from a solitary chef now and again), had produced over 330 desserts between us. A Saturday night (assuming a full compliment of staff and KPs) would serve about 120. My fellow KP had requested to go home early as he had college the next day, and so got to leave at 23:00. I was left on my own until after 2:30AM to clear up the night before I was supposed to resume my studies at 10AM.
A particular low point was seeing in the bells on Hogmanay 12/13 cleaning up after a 5 course Hogmanay dinner I’d been promised would be finished in time for us to get out for midnight. I had no choice in any of this because we were told that, if the kitchen was anything but immaculate in the morning, we’d both be sacked and replaced with agency staff. Staff regularly worked until after midnight and were expected in to work at 8AM the next day.
After a year of Hell, I tendered my resignation after weeks of being bullied by a particularly unpleasant colleague who would go on racist rants and frequently joked about assaulting me, as well as once literally biting me on the shoulder. I was assured management would talk to him and we eventually came to an agreement that I would work until I found another job, then I would leave. A couple months later I escaped and released a breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding since the day I started. I shudder to think where I’d be today had I not gotten out of that job, and shudder still thinking of those still in such awful conditions.
Hospitality can be a thoroughly enjoyable industry to work in – the camaraderie and shared hardship of the work can forge iron-clad friendships, and I know of former teachers who still work as waiting staff because they earn over £100 in tips on a Saturday night alone. However, it also offers a toxic mix of poor working conditions, high staff turnover, and precarious contractual situations. In some sense I believe everyone should have to work at some point in the back-of-house of a restaurant to understand the suffering that goes into giving diners an “experience”, but I would not want to inflict my experiences on my worst enemy.
It’s no coincidence that I only met one other person in a trade union in the entire time I worked in hospitality, and it’s just taken for granted that it’s going to be a terrible job that we can delegate to migrant workers or poor students. Workers are trapped by zero-hour contracts, poor pay, and an environment where they are made to compete with each other for hours and to appease management because it is so easy to find other workers to replace them. This is part of a wider culture of poor pay and high unemployment which pervades the UK economy, trapping thousands in jobs like poorly treated KPs in expensive Edinburgh restaurants.
We need to look seriously at how poorly staff in hospitality (not just KPs, but bar staff, waiters, cleaners etc) are treated, because my story is far from unique and nobody should have to endure such working conditions. The increased student loan I could claim in third/fourth year was life-changing because I could afford to work less and still have a comfortable standard of living, and couldn’t be held to ransom in atrocious working conditions. We need reform of zero hours contracts because of how easy it is for workers on zero hour contracts to be held to ransom by unscrupulous employers, and to find ways to empower workers in these workplaces and ensure they’re adequately informed of and protected by the law. An increased minimum wage would also mean less pressure to take every available hour, and less scrapping between staff to snatch up any available shifts.
I now work in retail, and although working with the general public is as unpredictable as one assumes, it’s still the best job I’ve had and I’m eternally grateful to the sound staff I work with and the excellent company I work for. Mostly, however, I’m just grateful I’ll never have to suffer working a Christmas service on sweets and dishes again, and that I actually get breaks now and again. Tip your waiters. Be nice to your sales assistants. A nice word and being treated like a human by a customer can save a day, so be that person that brightens up some SA or waiter’s shift.