While some advocate premature opening, Unite’s Julia Marciniak lifts the lid on our hospitality & tourism sector

drawing

“Washing hands doesn’t contribute to profits, so it’s not a priority for bosses”.

Most Easter weekends see us visiting pubs and restaurants to meet up with friends.  This weekend is very different, with hospitality outlets closed as a result of Covid-19.   As we sit at home, have a read of this post by Unite Hospitality Coordinator Julia Marciniak who lifts the lid on the conditions faced by many hospitality workers – and highlights what needs to be done to ensure that hospitality workplaces are safer places for staff and customers when they do re-open.

The picture at the top of this post was drawn by the young son of an activist and captures previous protests outside Dublin’s Ivy restaurant. 

Introduction

Julia Marciniak: This week Adrian Cummins, CEO of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, called on the Government to set out clear plans for lifting restrictions so that businesses can re-open.

Obviously restrictions will eventually be lifted, but when that happens a focus needs to be put on employers’ responsibilities to put in place new measures that ensure the health and safety of workers and the general public.  Those measures need to include adequate washing facilities, break times, and a transparent method of workplace inspections.

The Hospitality sector is a key component of the Irish economy worth up to €7.6 billion and directly employing around 180,000 people. The sector contributes up to €5.14 million per week to the Exchequer. It is also a key buyer from Irish suppliers, accounting for €15.7 million.

The 180,000 workers in the hospitality sector also impact on the local economy; on a weekly basis they spend an estimated €54.3 million in the Irish economy. This has a positive impact on jobs in other sectors such as retail, making hospitality an important part of the Irish economy.

But without the workforce of baristas, waiting staff, bar staff, chefs, kitchen porters and many others, the sector cannot make any profit or have any impact. The workers are the engine at the heart of the sector that keep it alive.   Without them no profits can be made.

Hospitality in a time of Covid-19

We are facing a huge crisis in the hospitality sector at the moment because of forced closures during the Covid-19 emergency.  Most of the workers in this sector were laid off in the past few weeks. And the few who remain in employment are afraid of getting sick and potentially infecting others.

It is highly irresponsible for any non-essential outlet to remain open given the risk to public health and the health of workers.

But for some employers profit will always come before health.

As Unite Hospitality & Tourism Coordinator, and as a former hospitality worker myself, I have been watching as the emergency unfolds – and as the authorities give instructions that hospitality workers cannot implement.

Firstly, we are told to stop the spread of the virus we must wash and dry our hands thoroughly and regularly.  Simple, right?

Unfortunately not.  In my own experience, most workplaces do not provide their workers with soap, there is almost never a paper towel to dry your hands, and in some cases the only access to running water is in the customer toilets.

This may be shocking for customers, given the basic need for hygiene when we are serving food and drink – even in non-Covid times.

In order to cut costs and increase profits, most places are understaffed. With workers being so overloaded with tasks, it is impossible to find time to wash your hands as often as we should. Washing hands doesn’t contribute to profits, so it’s not a priority for bosses.  And we don’t just struggle to find time to wash our hands: we struggle to get a drink of water or a toilet break during a busy day.

In most establishments, staff struggle for the basics. They often don’t have a place to change or safely leave their belongings.   It is unacceptable that, on many occasions, workers have no option but to change in front of their colleagues in a tiny overcrowded room. Often no lockers are provided, and we just need to hope that our phones, wallets and jackets are still there at the end of the shift. There is often a little disclaimer on the wall to the effect that management don’t take any responsibility for the property of staff members.

In some cases there is no table or chair provided to sit and have a daily food break. Well, you can always sit on the staircase or an empty keg – right?

If they are provided at all, staff toilets are usually dirty as are staff rooms – again, if provided.  While the customer areas of establishments are cleaned on a regular basis, this does not apply to staff areas.  Of course, we should all clean up after ourselves, but what if our colleagues don’t?   Should staff breaks be spent cleaning up after others?

While a lack of staff facilities is always problematic, it assumes even more importance in a pandemic.

Facilities are just part of the story.  Some establishments ignore workers’ legal entitlement to breaks and rest periods.

In order to help halt the spread of Covid-19, we were told early on that social distancing is vital. Yet, in the midst of a global pandemic, there was a shocking delay in closing bars and restaurants – even though anyone who has either worked or been a customer in a busy restaurant or pub knows full well that social distancing is not possible.

Looking back from today’s reality to those bustling bars and restaurants just a few weeks ago gives me, and no doubt many others, a huge sense of anxiety.  Yet again, profit was prioritised over the health of staff, customers and the general public.

Eventually, and mainly because of public pressure, most restaurants and pubs had decided to close even before the caretaker government took action.

For workers in tourism and hospitality, this meant immediate layoffs with over 140,000 people losing their jobs over the course of a week. Thousands of workers who are not considered ‘essential’ and cannot work from home were laid off overnight and now face an uncertain future.  This includes a significant number of hospitality workers.

Short-term support

The response from the state to these layoffs, pushed by the Trade Union movement, was initially a payment of €203, later increased to €350 per week.  A rent freeze was introduced together with a temporary ban on evictions.

During this emergency, it is important that basic needs are met and people are protected from hunger and homelessness. The essential support provided by the Government is welcome – but it does throw up questions about the average income of hospitality workers.

Highlighting poverty pay and precariousness

The majority of hospitality workers are on minimum wages, with almost all – including managers and supervisors – earning below the Living Wage of €12.30 per hour.

The €350 social welfare payment would work out at €10.00 for a 35-hour week. Hospitality workers rarely have secure hours or a secure income. Many workers in hospitality who would like to work full-time hours are not on full-time contracts. Instead, hours vary week on week, depending on how busy the season is or who the manager favours at the time. And even if you are rostered for particular hours, they could fall through if the place is not busy and you are asked to go home. Whole shifts are sometimes cancelled at very short notice.

The result is that, for many hospitality workers, the emergency payment of €350 is more than what they earn in employment.

The reality is that precarious and low-paid work has become so widespread that many people in full-time work are living in poverty. At the same time, rising accommodation costs mean that people on low wages can spend up to 70% of their wages on rent alone.  Hospitality is a key economic sector, but most hospitality workers are struggling to pay their bills.

We are in a state of emergency, in the middle of a global pandemic. People all over the world are getting sick and many are dying. Businesses are closing down, people are instructed not to leave their homes. The world we knew has quickly changed. We have witnessed how greed and incompetence facilitated the spread of Covid-19. We have also witnessed how local communities have come together to help and protect each other.  It was pressure from communities that resulted in the cancellation of St. Patrick’s Day parades – and looking back we will see that this was a positive milestone in the battle against the virus.

Using isolation to imagine a better future – together

We should, if we can, use some of this time in isolation to look back and recognise the problems that we faced in society before this emergency. We all need secure well-paid jobs, we need social housing and rent control, we need more investment in a health system that has been run down for decades, and we need universal public health care, free at the point of access.

If workers were in poverty before the pandemic, when many businesses were booming and making profits, then it is worrying to think what will happen when the inevitable economic crisis confronts us.  It was largely working-class people who bore the brunt of the last economic crisis. But workers are very powerful when we stand together. This is the time to organise, to join a trade union and to get involved.  It is a time to stand strong and send out a clear message: we will not allow the working class to bear the brunt of the next crisis while those at the top of the economic ladder continue to avoid paying their dues to society.

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