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Opinion: The Secret Chef on the hospitality labor crisis

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The pandemic may have had a seismic impact on the sector, but, says our anonymous columnist, let’s not pretend that long before it hit, we hadn’t already "done an excellent job of tearing it into a painfully fragile state"

Crisis is a big word. It’s a concept that suggests an immediate, present, untenable situation that presents itself with little to no warning. It boldly hints at significant short-term pain and a unified approach to resolve the situation, whether it is a natural disaster or a demonstrable and impactful shortfall in the number of people who are willing to work long, unsociable hours for little financial recompense.
I’ve now been reading about the hospitality labor crisis in almost every news source – both related to the profession and those that aren’t – for about six months. Once economies began tentatively reopening after successful vaccination campaigns, the news stories began rolling, slowly at first and then as a deluge.
It’s hard to overstate the knock-on economic effects of this, particularly with regards to an industry that has suffered a more brutal pummelling than most others since March of 2020. In the UK, Le Gavroche, a long- established, double Michelin-starred London stalwart, announced that they would no longer be serving lunch for the foreseeable future, and they are far from alone in having to curtail hours to prevent burnout among the staff restaurants have managed to retain. The fact that there is clearly pent-up demand from consumers, not to mention swollen bank accounts, makes this all the harder to swallow. A bumper summer bonanza is merely an elusive back-waiter away.
The accepted narrative is that we can easily blame Covid, or, in the UK, Brexit. Both events led to a repatriation of young and migrant workers to their homelands and travel restrictions (both pandemic and political) have prevented them from returning, or others following in their stead. But to do this is to ignore some fundamental long-term truths that have been conveniently masked by short- term upheaval.
Doubtless, the labor shortage has been exacerbated by the pandemic but the reality is this is a crisis that has been decades in the making rather than 18 months.

A persistent, long-term problem

A 2010 paper by hospitality scholar Dr Anthony Brien from New Zealand cites references to difficulties “attracting and retaining high-quality employees” going back to the early 1990s.
The paper pithily summarizes the issue in question by referring to jobs within hospitality as a stop-gap employment position “only till I get a real job”.
It became widely accepted that staff were as disposable as single-use cutlery, that as owners we were doing these people a favor by offering them terrible pay for working precisely when we needed them and never when we didn’t. We offered them hourly contracts for unguaranteed work on salaries made only bearable (and legal) thanks to customer tips. We expected them to work hard for overly long shifts in uncomfortable conditions with few, if any breaks, and then wanted gratitude when we offered them some leftover food to stem the pangs of hunger.
We took advantage of a young, transient, cheap labor force, preferring to constantly recruit rather than invest in training and reward those who showed promise. It suited our accounts to stagnate wages by replenishing this workforce from the bottom up, instead of trying to raise-up the system and begin to make self-imposed changes to improve working conditions.
This unacceptable treatment has been our undoing and the veil has now been lifted thanks to the tragedy of a global pandemic. So, yes, in one sense Covid has ripped a hole through this profession we profess to love, but let’s not pretend that long before March 2020, we hadn’t already done an excellent job of tearing and shredding it into a painfully brittle and fragile state already.
The Secret Chef