Sunday, 31 July 2016

Byron Burger and the racism of the hospitality industry

Just a few weeks ago kitchen workers from all over the world working at Byron Burger were rounded up for what they were told was training. 

When they arrived, immigration police were waiting for them and around 35 were arrested and deported. The rest are out there somewhere in hiding. Some of the workers at Byron had worked in the company for 4 years. Byron was happy to keep them on as long as they could be used cheaply, and then to discard them without a wince when it was in their interest. The logic behind employing workers without papers is simple: no need to pay them the minimum wage or to adhere to basic work regulations or even human rights. 

Workers that resist super exploitation can be threatened with deportation, which could quite possibly mean death if the country they’re fleeing from is unsafe due to war or famine. It’s a relationship akin to slavery. This kind of behaviour is endemic in the hospitality industry. Only a few years ago a similar thing happened in the hotel I work for. 

The club had an informal policy of employing workers without papers until all of a sudden the police were informed and they were rounded up whilst at work and sent to detention centres for deportation. Migrant workers are seen as totally disposable. The racism of hospitality is not limited to workers without papers. Legal migrant workers are subject to similar conditions with little protection from the law. They are often totally invisible to the outside world. 

My workplace is still made up predominantly of migrant workers– EU migrants are employed directly by the company, non-EU migrants work back of house for the agency. Altogether, about 70% are non-British. They’re from Italy, Spain, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, the Caribbean and Africa. These workers are made to work in unsafe conditions; they are subject to oppressive managers, abusive customers and no economic security. Chefs work 12- 15 hour shifts every day. They leave the place at 11.30 at night and come back again for 8am the next day. They suffer from heat stress as their body moves non-stop around stoves and ovens reacting to the demand of guests who expect their food to arrive in no longer than 8 minutes. There is no air conditioning and there is no window for them to breathe. Kitchen staff can work in these conditions for up to 70hours a week with little consistency around breaks and can work up to 15 days without a day off. Chefs that take 5minutes to slip out of the club for a cigarette are followed by a manager who then yells and belittle them in front of colleagues. 

Waiters regularly tell me about experiences of racism from entitled customers who exploit their position of power to humiliate and degrade workers. I’ve seen guests die from laughter as they’ve mimicked the accent of their server. A friend recently told me about an instance where she poured someone’s wine for them. The guest was white, she was wealthy – maybe an artist or a director of some kind. She felt the need to point out how disgusted she was by 'African wine drinking customs'. 

On a separate day my friend was told by someone else she shouldn’t dye her afro blonde – that 'blonde is for whites'. Totally unabashed harassment. The friend is a woman of colour in her early 20s, she runs food and drinks to tables. She earns the national minimum wage and for this reason she must tolerate these spoilt bigots. 

My workplace is not open to the public. It’s a place where celebrities can go for privacy to escape the paparazzi and meet fellow artists. Superstars like Madonna do their partying there and the Hollywood actor Will Smith brings his family for birthday celebrations. 

What we need is solidarity and collective action to end this culture of disposability and workplace racism. The recent EU referendum ushered a lot of anxiety into my workplace. It was apparent that it had been occupying many workers' minds. Many would ask questions like, Will they still have a job? Would they be able to stay in the country to live? I found myself for the first time in my life feeling very aware of what seems to be enormous privilege as a second- generation migrant with British citizenship. I wanted to reassure them that there are many who would fight for their right to remain. However so far, the message has been made loud and clear. ‘The British people have voted because they no longer want us here.’ But let’s not view this out of context. Tabloid papers have gone to enormous lengths to scapegoat and vilify those they consider today to be the outsiders for several years. 

Measures like the recent immigration bill introduced by our current prime minister, Theresa May make it difficult for migrants to find homes and access healthcare. Arbitrary immigration raids in restaurants, community areas and other institutions are increasing. Street harassment is rife without any real intervention – particularly against muslim women wearing headscarves. A Romanian friend told me about an incident in her local Tesco where she was accused by a fellow shopper of hoarding baby milk to take to her country. 

Without a Union presence inside these workplaces, the use of collective action, and without any real solidarity from other workers the service sector is like a bubble hidden from the rest of society where human and basic work rights are violated everyday leaving migrant workers to feel alone, degraded and powerless.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Run, Run, Run.
I like to move. I enjoy the rush, the sense of urgency. Guests depend on me for drinks that ease tensions on first dates, for warm food when they’re hungry and for quick payments before they leave for the next part of the evening. I often feel the adrenaline rush through my body as I set up a table in time for the next group of eager eaters, before the couple on table 6 finish their starters and in time to take the next order of drinks. A system develops in my head of how I move my body, and the economy of my physique. One cover after the next, we turn the tables – a Fordist production line of good times, romance, business partnerships, birthday celebrations, or whatever…. There’s an hour between one booking and the next- a few people walk in – ‘of course you may come in!’, the manager will exclaim. It’s non-stop.
But , I DO get Exhausted. This is my 8th shift without a day off and I can feel it in my bones. I’ve had very few breaks and my shifts have varied between 8 and 13 hours in length. Over and over again, we crack the same smile and fake a laugh to massage the bloated egos of dreadful guests. My body is aching, it’s stiff, my legs feel as if they’re about to seize up from all the running and I haven’t even had a moment to drink water, let alone visit the toilet. I feel like I’m losing my mind. I’ve made a few silly mistakes now. Everyone thinks I’m stupid. The mistakes seem trivial but in the heat of the moment they create earthquakes. Managers can be particularly brutal. Today I slowed down my pace for one moment as I was clearing a table and the head chef handled me into the kitchen to carry out a task quicker. He actually grabbed me by my waist, took the plate from my hand and threw it into the sink so that I would take his dish from the pass quicker. For many – and at least on the surface- this treatment is totally normalised.

The headwaiter said I’m on the wrong side of hospitality and joked that the man is French. I must say, since starting this journey my skin has hardened considerably. These incidents are not isolated they are all too commonplace. On a regular basis our superiors will bark, ‘wake up’ and we’ll be laughed at for saying we’re tired, or made to feel lazy for asking for a break. There’s very little in the way of humanity or dignity in the way we hospitality workers are treated, even though the product of our labour is based solely on feeding the soul and body. It’s a bit like a microcosm, completely hidden from the everyday world. A different moral code exists – a different legal code exists, even! Behind the pretty exterior, the smiling faces and elegant performance there’s a sweatshop where basic rights are ignored on an everyday level to make way for 'business needs'.
They say it’s hospitality, and that’s just the way it is - it’s a high stress, high pressure environment and it’s not for everyone. But is it really that things are just the way they are? Is it really necessary to be understaffed EVERY SUMMER? To be pushed to the limit every week during a busy period, to work 70-80 hours straight? How long should it take for one person to polish 700 pieces of silver?
And what exactly does the business even get from an exhausted workforce? Tonight I was a mess. I looked like shit and my work dress was filthy, because I simply didn’t have time to wash it. I’ve been using wet wipes to remove stains as my life pattern has consisted of nothing, but sleep- work -sleep -work.
We’re dazzled by the exclusivity, the clientele – it’s a regular hang out for the coolest of rising stars and seasoned celebs- models, artists, film stars, designers. We’re expected to work for free because this place is special. The service charge is taken from us. The payment we take from providing good service to guests is absorbed by the company and used to top up managers wages. On rare occasions we get a pat on the back for all our hard work on a 12 hour shift, but we're not yet worthy of a full break. Rather, we’re made to feel guilty for asking for one. Our work load can double or even treble, arbitrarily.  It’s not humane, but we put up with it, because we have to. It’s modern day slavery. And what if I told you we are made up primarily of migrants? Cheap, imported labour. A waitress from Poland told me that on some mornings she wakes up and her eyes are swollen, that she thinks she cries in her sleep, whilst she’s dreaming. Many are trying to flee poverty and the company exploits this. We need a union now!

Thursday, 24 March 2016

George Monbiot has written a song inspired by this blog

Award-winning writer, Guardian journalist and activist George Monbiot has written a song inspired by this blog and the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, where Nafissatou Diallo, an African muslim woman and single mother from Guinea working as room attendant in a Manhatten hotel, accused the former IMF chief with French presidential ambitions, of sexual assault against her as she cleaned his room.

It will be sung by folk singer and musician Ewan McLennan as part of a forthcomming joint album project.

Thankyou George for writing it. Thankyou Ewan for bringing the music to it and we look forward to hearing you sing it.

Abuse is a daily occurance for us, whether by the corporate system which pushes us into pain, poverty and depression through treating us like machines to work ever faster and for less money, or from supervisors harassing us and disrespecting us. All of this is invisible and normalised by the agencies and the hotels, and sadly the guests and wider society who are ignorant of what goes on.

We also face risks of unwanted attention and sexual assault by guests who think we are subservient and disposable - a bit like our employers do - due to our low status, lack of English, and our heavily gendered role of cleaning and 'home-making' in hotels, which can make us 'easy prey'.

We do this work for minimum wage, on zero hours, with no protection, or progression, and with nothing really between us, and them, except for a rape alarm.

That's why we need a #HotelUnionNow


Dirty Secret

Strive to be invisible, to vanish from their lives

The unseen hands that sweep away the night

Make it disappear

Then disappear myself

Ghost of the corridors

Consuming the detritus of lives I never see

I know their dirty secrets, the inner lives of people far from home

Remake the beds, rebuild the world before the Fall

My hands bleed from the work, but not a drop must touch the sheets.

Sixteen rooms a day, and nothing left behind

Four thousand miles away my children wait

To them I am a ghost, a shadow on the screen.

No one speaks my language here,

I smile and duck and seem to understand

The supervisor shouts. I nod.  

In the canteen the other ghosts just look and turn away.

The door slams open

Sorry sir, I say, and try to vanish from the room,

Leaving nothing but a smile.

He takes me by the shoulders

Sweat and beer and crumpled suit.

Pushes his tongue against my teeth

I shrink away, he shrugs and turns

Already I am gone, his mind scrubbed clean

Random female from Abroad, no dirt beneath his nails.

I know their dirty secrets

I am their dirty secret

I scrub sins from the passing world

Pack them in the trolley and push them to the lift

The sheet is clean, the day begins again

No human trace remains.

Monday, 22 February 2016

The Hospitality Hydra

By "Sam"


I finally arrived at the back of the hotel after fighting my way through the prelude to rush hour. I was slightly late and had trouble finding the temp agency supervisor, who was not outside to let me in. I managed to get in by liaising with the guard, since the fingerprint identification they used for the steel turnstile prevented me from entering as any other employee would. I  found my uniform quickly and struggled as I did last shift, to find two pairs of gloves that would fit my hands. We needed two pairs as the plates would burn our hands otherwise. They still burned our hands if we didn’t carry them with a cloth underneath. We then signed up with another staff manager, who assigned us our table and group number.

Group A served once side of the banquet hall, while group B served the other side. Each group was led by a supervisor, who we would follow using ‘snake service’ to serve each table completely and as fast as possible. I was assigned the same partner as last time, who was essentially my in-house counterpart and whose shift went on until the end of the event. As he had shown me what to do last time, I set to work polishing the cutlery immediately and helping set up the table. 

Just as before, the wait staff supervisor went through the instructions for the night. The tone was paternal with a feigned professionalism. He did not expect much from the agency workers beyond being able to follow his rather confusing instructions. He went through the menu, while struggling with some of the vocabulary in a thick Italian accent. We then joined the in-house staff in the backroom of the banquet hall where we were given another set of instructions on how to behave and serve. This was common sense, but we were generally treated like school children, who would just mess everything up if our hand wasn’t held. This encouraged a mood of rebellion, with many temps making jokes behind the backs of supervisors throughout the night.

The shift began with a group of us assigned to the drinks reception where we were instructed to hold trays of drinks and serve the banquet attendees as they arrived. We stood in a line and at the doors to hand drinks to everyone and take them away. Apparently at a 5 star hotel, people must always mediate between guests and the things they consume. Nobody must ever be allowed to serve themselves. 

There was a group of blond women walking around during this time handing out programs. I managed to pocket one of them and read it after we finished serving drinks. It included information about the event, which was an awards ceremony of sorts for London realtors and estate agencies. This merely enhanced the vast gulf between those of us who were serving and the guests themselves, who arrived clad in suits and gowns that looked as if they would cost the equivalent of a years rent in London. The irony was not lost on my fellow servers, and glances were exchanged as the revelers swelled. Afterwards, we commiserated over our own housing woes while forming two straight lines in the kitchen, ready to begin serving the first course. 


The first course was served the same as the previous shift. A snake service that began in the kitchen. We stood in one long line, slowly trodding forward to the large steel counter top behind which several chefs were rapidly pushing plates out, forming grid-like rows and columns from which we were to pick up the starters three at a time. As soon as our plates were gathered, we would each rapidly quicken our pace from trod to trot, exiting the kitchen and weaving through the tables and chairs like the Hydra of Lerna. This was no easy feat, however it was an extremely efficient way to rapidly serve several hundred guests. This ‘snake service’ repeated with each course. Each server was responsible for their own table, yet we were paired with a non-agency hotel staff member and worked as a team. As a team we cleared one table at a time, adjusted the cutlery for each course, served the desserts, coffees, and chocolates at the end.

During this shift, several things went wrong in the kitchen and there were not enough main courses ready at the proper time. This provoked a high degree of stress from all of the top managers, who then proceeded to shout, slam doors, throw things and of course, blame the agency workers. Both in-house and agency staff were brought into a room after the shift and reprimanded for what to many of us, seemed a false claim – that we put the sugar out too early. 

This rather minor detail served as an excuse for the wait staff manager to berate us and tell us how expendable we were. His tirade included lamenting how much money they spend on staff to do the job properly and our seeming lack of competency or enthusiasm for his standards. He seemed to forget that literally everyone in the room (roughly 70 of us) were all paid either the minimum wage or a few pence above it, in one of the largest 5-star hotels in London.