Comment: Hospitality sector is failing its workers, it’s time to give them a voice

Research shows that employees in the industry do not always get the minimum legal protections available to them and often suffer ill treatment. Reform is needed and the best place to start is by listening to the workers

Where abuse was suffered or witnessed by hospitality workers, almost half of the survey respondents did not report it. Picture: Getty

I recently published a research report on the lived experience of hospitality workers.

The research was conducted before the pandemic hit and I held off publishing because (a) the sector was brought to its knees, and (b) I hoped that the enforced lockdowns would provide the time and opportunity for the sector to address issues which long preceded Covid-19.

Thus far the response to the report has been largely positive. I have been contacted by hospitality workers who are glad that their voice is starting to be heard and by employers acknowledging that issues need to be addressed.

In 2017 the International Labour Organisation (ILO), as the global body responsible for determining international labour standards, published guidelines on “decent work and socially responsible tourism”. The ILO defines decent work as “opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work, in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity”.

The evidence presented in this report indicates that hospitality in Ireland falls short of the ILO criteria.

I chose to publish the research now because I detected no substantial change to how workers are being treated in hospitality and indeed I fear it this situation will get worse.

The voice of hospitality employers has been loud and clear in recent months. It has been represented on various task forces and in negotiations with government on re-opening plans, but in all of this, the voice of workers has remained deafeningly silent.

That is not a new scenario for these workers. One thing the research reveals is their lack of voice. Even where abuse was suffered or witnessed, almost half of respondents did not report it. Of the half of who did report it, almost half of those said no action was taken to address the issue.

Among the most frequent reasons for non-reporting were fear of consequences, a belief that nothing would change, and the fact that the perpetrator was the owner/manager and there was no one else to report to.

Hospitality workers do not tend to join trade unions and this is something that is addressed in the report.

My primary motives for conducting this research were to give voice to workers and to provoke debate about how hospitality could adapt to provide a more desirable career option.

The report is written in an accessible way and is freely available to all.

The study, which is the first of its kind in Ireland, contains evidence that workers do not always get the minimum legal protections available to them. For example, 70 per cent of respondent reported not getting a Sunday premium, 43 per cent did not get a contract of employment on commencement, and 52 per cent did not get their basic entitlement to rest breaks.

It is worth remembering that our minimum legal standards are there for good reason. Rest breaks, for example, reduce the likelihood of burnout and/or accidents at work.

More concerning for me, however, are the testimonies of ill treatment, be it verbal, psychological and sometimes even physical. Some 77 per cent of those surveyed reported experiencing verbal abuse sometimes or often, while 64 per cent said they had experienced psychological abuse sometimes/often. Some 63 per cent reported witnessing or experiencing bullying at work, and 55 per cent reported witnessing or experiencing harassment, most commonly based on gender, race or age.

The report is peppered with the exact words of respondents, as they are best placed to account for themselves. At times these make for disturbing reading.

On a positive note, the report contains extensive recommendations for how the sector could be improved in terms of the worker experience. As is often the case, those closest to the frontline know best what could/should be done, and yet they are seldom asked.

With 257 respondents, I cannot claim this research represents all workers or all employers. For me it provides a litmus test that suggests that further investigation is needed – and soon. Subsequent survey research by Siptu and Unite, the trade unions, provide strikingly similar findings.

I know from my involvement in a hospitality improvement campaign in Galway that there are “good” employers who adhere to legal regulations and treat workers with dignity and respect. Indeed, several of them have contacted me in recent days as they are keen to do better.

My hope is that such employers will support the push for change if for no other reason than it levels an incredibly competitive playing field. Good practice needs to be highlighted so that customers can vote with their feet.

In my opinion, leadership and imagination is sorely lacking in the sector’s employer representative bodies. In a recent Business Post article, Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland chose to question the validity of research such as mine rather than embracing the possibility of, and ideas for, change offered by the hospitality workers who participated in the study. For those workers, that simply adds insult to injury. For me, it does not bode well for the sector’s willingness to improve.

Cummins questioned the independence of the research and suggested that such research should be conducted by government. Universities conduct independent research to high standards. That is our remit. If, as Cummins suggests, the government was to conduct research on the lived experience of hospitality workers (and I would be delighted if it did), it would likely engage the services of independent academics for that purpose.

He also suggested that my survey was “internal”. This is not the case. Pages 12 and 13 of the report detail the survey respondents, clearly not “internal”. Some 66 per cent of respondents were over 26 years old, 73 per cent had worked for more than three years in hospitality, and 77 per cent had worked in more than one establishment. They spanned all areas of restaurant, hotel and bar work, and 56 per cent described the employment status as permanent.

My research contains the testimonies of 257 hospitality workers. Add to that the participants in research conducted by Siptu and Unite.

Cummins has stated on record that research such as mine “suits a certain agenda”. I want to be absolutely clear that my agenda is to provide a vehicle for the much-neglected voice of hospitality workers, and to provoke debate that will lead to positive change for workers, employers, customers and the sector as a whole.

Allow me to finish by sharing three short quotes from workers who participated in this study:

“He [my manager] would send me emails listing the things I had done wrong. Worst of all he would cc everyone else in the email so everyone I worked with could see how stupid he thought I was.”

“Manager implied he would promote me should I accept his favours.”

“Everywhere I have worked I have seen harassment of different kinds. Bosses harassing staff, chefs harassing staff, serious number of customers harassing young female staff. But it’s all swept under the carpet, ‘it’s part of the industry’.”