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.