The Christmas Class War

For many workers, Christmas is the toughest time of the year as long hours combine with low wages and despotic bosses. If we want the festive season to be enjoyed by everyone, it's time to organise.

Chefs and hospitality workers will face the particular brunt of Christmas chaos. (SolStock / Getty Images)

What does December mean for you? If it’s all Christmas decorations, late-night shopping, and staff drinks at the pub, it’s likely your job doesn’t require you to work absurd hours under a sleighful of pressure as soon as the Michael Bublé comes on. For the workers on the other side of the magic, though, December rarely is the most wonderful time of the year.

Paul*, a supermarket worker from the North West, has been in retail for eight years. ‘Christmas is chaotic—especially right now,’ he says. ‘Employers expect a lot more work out of you for the same pay at Christmas, which for me isn’t much more than minimum wage. Everything gets so much more intense, and maintaining good customer satisfaction is almost impossible when those customers are more agitated than at any other time of year.’

Hannah, who works in a café inside a retail store in Greater Manchester, echoes Paul. ‘Shops stay open later, so the expectation is that you’ll finish at least an hour later than usual if you’re working in the evening,’ she says. ‘On top of that we aren’t allowed to book any time off between the last week of November and 1 February because it’s classed as the busiest trading period.’

For full-time staff, this stretch can be gruelling. Hannah points out that it makes it near impossible to relax and participate in family plans over the festive season, too. She tells Tribune that even when employers do decide to hire Christmas temps, permanent employees are expected to train them on the job for no extra pay, impacting their own productivity in turn.

‘The festive period is one hundred times worse than any other time of the year,’ adds Carlos*, a Greater Manchester chef. ‘It’s twenty times busier, and often you don’t get time to eat your lunch or even take a short cigarette break.’

Relief from the stress of working over Christmas sometimes comes in the form of a monetary incentive. But this year, Paul’s employers have scrapped the colleague Christmas bonuses; instead, they’ll be offered bonuses every five years. ‘Staff are now expected to work harder than they already do for absolutely no gain,’ he says.

Carlos echoes Paul’s sentiment. ‘You end up working up to sixty-five hours a week,’ he says. ‘Employers don’t care if chefs have to do extra hours or come in to cover somebody on their days off if there’s a booking of sixty people they need to serve.’

The average salary for a chef in the UK, according to Glassdoor, is around £21,170. For a chef working upwards of sixty hours a week, that’s less than minimum wage. ‘To employers, you’re only one more person working for them,’ Carlos says. ‘So you just have to get on with it.’

He adds that the one thing that used to make up some of the financial shortfall—tips—is in shorter supply these days, due to a mix of infection controls and the rise of cashless payments. Lillie, a waiter from East Sussex, feels similarly: ‘People will pay £500 bills but leave no tips even when you provide perfect customer service despite working a full restaurant with only three staff members in,’ she says. ‘It’s a real kick in the teeth.’

Like so much else, Covid-19 amplified these problems—although some employers have proved keener to push things than others. The shop Hannah works for decided not to take on the government’s furlough scheme: instead, staff were sent to another workplace to work one week on, one week off. Then, when lockdown was lifted, Hannah and her colleagues were informed by management that they owed business hours from when they were paid but unable to work.

‘The expectation is that you’ll “pay back” these hours over busy peak times, like Christmas,’ she says. ‘But you’re already working full-time in a stressful environment, and not allowed to take holidays.’

And worldwide, the ongoing supply chain crisis isn’t helping things. ‘On both the shop floor and in the café, there are still stock issues due to Covid,’ Hannah adds. ‘That means angry and frustrated customers who ultimately take it out on the staff, because they’re their point of contact. Not everyone is in the Christmas spirit.’

Plenty of businesses make a lot more money over the Christmas period, a time dominated by office Secret Santas and stocking fillers. According to a YouGov poll, people in Britain will spend £1,108 on average this year, with nearly £400 of that going on presents alone, and a further £351 on hotel stays and food and drink combined.

These huge figures show just how important Christmas spending is for the retail and hospitality industries. Supermarkets Aldi and Lidl saw sales jump by 7.9 percent and 11 percent respectively in the run up to last Christmas—despite the pandemic—and Christmas sales account for over a quarter of small business earnings on average. Early Christmas shopping accounted for a 0.8 percent rise in retail sales this year following no growth for the previous five months. More sales means more customers, which hands employers the perfect excuse to dismiss employee happiness in the name of fatter margins.

However, the latest Covid-19 measures introduced in the face of the omicron variant are expected to hit hospitality hard in its most profitable month. While no legal measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing have been reimposed, the latest advice to work from home where possible and avoid mixing with people you don’t have to has caused a surge in Christmas cancellations, threatening venue closures and job losses.

Trade association UK Hospitality has predicted that takings will be down 40 percent this month and there has already been a 25 percent rise in Christmas party cancellations. The uncertainty once again puts hospitality workers in a precarious position where staff cuts may be necessary, this time with no furlough pay to soften the blow.

‘Over the past few weeks we’ve heard horror stories from members in hospitality who have been exploited to breaking point, with even longer hours, no breaks, and abuse from customers as they’re forced to put themselves at risk policing new Covid restrictions,’ says Bryan Simpson, an organiser from Unite’s new hospitality branch.

But as Bryan is keen to point out, there’s an alternative. ‘We have the Unite Hospitality Charter,’ he explains, ‘which campaigns for and collectively demands that employers implement a series of minimum standards for the sector, including the real living wage (regardless of age), guaranteed hours instead of zero hours, 100 percent tips, and a proactive sexual harassment policy which protects workers from the moment they set foot in the workplace.’

That charter is just one of the many ways that workers are fighting back. This month, too, Unite members at Tesco distribution centres voted to strike both before and after Christmas. Management had offered a pay rise well below inflation—but after raising the prospect of staff shortages at one of the busiest times of the year, the workers were given a renewed pay offer and the strike was suspended.

Paul says that in his work, ‘Christmas is taken as an opportunity to be exploited,’ and that seems to be the feeling of far too many employers up and down the country. But the high reliance on staff at Christmas shows that it can be an opportunity for workers, too—to organise and fight for change.