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!