Hospitality industry… modern day slavery?

I spent a few days thinking about writing about what’s wrong with the hospitality industry nowadays, from low wages and unfair treatment, even to the forced labour.

As my real life friends know, I decided to change career path later in life, after having spent nearly twenty years to work as an employee in different sectors. I always liked cooking and it seemed a good chance to seize when I got funding to do a pizza chef course at a school in Italy. The main problem is that I didn’t find a job at all after doing the course (I only did a training period in a shop), mainly because restaurant and pizzeria owners disliked the idea of having a nearly-40-year-old woman working as a pizza chef in the kitchen. So when I migrated to U.K. it came as a surprise to me to score two job interviews as a pizza chef in a short span of time. So everything ended up well? Not really. In both jobs I was supposed to serve up to 200 customers per night, working hours on end and…for 900 pounds a month, with no contract or payslips of course, so I had no insurance and nobody was paying my taxes… I said no and declined both offers, working illegally wasn’t in my plans.

When I moved to Edinburgh, I started to work as a housekeeper in hotels. Hourly pay was minimum wage but usually hours were from 4 to 6 a day and despite everything I was treated fairly by many supervisors. Still… working 25 hours a week was barely enough to pay the rent and bills… I started to focus on kitchen work again. I never went beyond a catering/kitchen assistant in schools and I only had the chance of preparing sandwiches, I never cooked at all… I washed lots of dishes, mopped floors and cleaned shelves though! How exciting 😉

I was told several times by the supervisors that to aim to a more permanent position or to be hired as a cook I needed a qualification more ‘complete’ than the ones I had already achieved. Therefore, I worked for a few summer months as a housekeeper full-time and saved a lot of money to pay for my year of training and school course as a commis chef.
I thought that after passing the exams and practical assignments with flying colours I could finally get a decently-paid job!! I was in for a few surprises……. I made a list of them… enjoy 😉

1) Kitchen/catering assistant positions.

Most catering/kitchen jobs advertised as part-time are on a rota. Some of them are defined “16 hours or less” but you’ll never get firsthand which days you’ll be working and how many hours a day. Consider that for your boss: a) you’ve no right to any social life because you accepted the ‘flexibility’ required by the job; b) you made yourself available to work for them… you think for 16 hrs, but they’ll feel free to call you whenever they like or they need you (maybe to replace someone who called in sick). If you say ‘no’ once, you’re fired.
* * *
I was hired in a coffee room after my graduation. The owner didn’t even know when you were supposed to work, she was scribbling on the rota minute-by-minute who was on that shift or the other, deleting people without their consent (who cares if they had made plans) and adding others in their place. I survived three weeks there, last straw was being called in the morning asking me to rush to the coffee room because she needed help… I was still in my pyjama! Of course, no contract and for three weeks of random hours I earned the staggering amount of £ 123….
At the moment I am working for another coffee room, where the job was advertised as kitchen/cook assistant. I don’t cook at all, there is not even a cooker, everything is cooked or prepared elsewhere. Great job for someone who graduated following Gordon Ramsay’s recipes books…… The rota isn’t as randomly decided as it was in the other one, but if the place is not busy, they send you home. Out of a 16/20-hrs a week job, I totalled 20 hrs… in nearly 3 weeks! Surely an income you can count on!

2) Nursing homes.

Stay away from catering/kitchen assistants and cook job positions in nursing home if possible…  I applied for two positions in two different nursing homes and nothing good ever came out of it!! The first one never called me back after the interview (while they had been so happy and keen at the moment of my application, delivered in person to the recruiter…), then 6 months later the recruiter called me again and… she asked me if I still wanted the job. I asked what had happened and she said “well you were studying at university and we tried everyone else, you’re the last one left”. Oooh thank you!! I replied that ‘no thanks, if the rota was interfering with my studies 6 months earlier, it surely does that now too’. This was a 16-hrs job, supposedly on weekends. That’s why I had applied for it! Of course, it wasn’t true. Second nursing home job ‘experience’… Get to be interviewed, recruiters (the permanent cook and the director) happy and keen to offer me the job straightaway.. yes, at the interview! I accepted, again a 16-hrs job position as a catering assistant. Needless to say, the job never happened! Maybe they conveniently hired someone else without saying anything to me… I don’t know, they actually never replied to phone calls or emails…

3) Commis chef jobs….

Hahaha ok, on the paper a commis chef is the lowest level in a professional kitchen. It is also someone who, one day, might be experienced and replace the head chef. There is just a problem…. everywhere, on every damn bloody advert in the country, the recruiters seek experienced commis chefs!!!!!!!!!!
So what’s the meaning of even attending a professional cookery course that teaches you everything about the profession but it is not considered enough to work? How am I supposed to leave school and a fulltime course with experience of two years at rosette level and also with good references?? (then NOT every restaurant/hotel would have rosettes anyway, would it??!?!?!!!).
Last but not the least, a commis chef is paid from 14,000 £ to 17,000 £ a year, depending on experience. Even though I was so lucky to score such a job, that would mean about 1,170 £ a month (gross net), and for 55-60hrs a week that would mean a hourly pay about 5.5/6 £. Such a hourly rate is less than minimum wage. It is also funny to hear that U.K. average salary is £ 26,500 a year…. Commis chefs with no rosette experience can aspire to approximately half of it. A shame, considering that you don’t do this job without passion and total dedication.

Therefore….. I can declare that having a job in the hospitality industry is the equivalent of being a modern slave, and if in some cases you’re treated fairly… you’re not a slave but you’re being exploited anyway.
In conclusion.. if you want a decent job, steer clear of the industry altogether or…open your own place and exploit someone else 😉

Cheers 🙂

Articles for further reading:

http://www.migrantsrights.org.uk/news/2013/exploitation-staff-hotels-part-industry-wide-business-model-say-campaigners

http://www.tourismconcern.org.uk/swi.html

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