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The ‘Great Resignation’ Is Our Chance to Change Hospitality for Good

The labour shortage in hospitality has bosses panicking – it's the perfect time to unionise and force one of modern capitalism's most exploitative sectors to overhaul the way it treats its workers.

The trade body UK Hospitality has stated that there are currently 188,000 open vacancies across the industry. (kurmyshov / Getty Images)

Today, talk of a ‘Great Resignation’ among workers is rising. In the United States, an estimated one in four people quit their jobs in 2021. This wave reached these shores, too. In October, the UK Labour Survey found that over 1.2 million people moved jobs in the period from July to September, while a survey of 6,000 workers by Randstad found that 69% felt confident enough to move into a new role in the coming months.

There are now major labour shortages in specific industries—particularly retail and hospitality. Not only do these statistics imply the unprecedented number of resignations that have happened this year, but they also show a wide and mounting demand for change in these respective industries. This Christmas, restaurants and bars have been faced with colossal challenges; many were forced to close early due to labour shortages.

What is driving workers to quit at such a scale? Any attempt at understanding a ‘Great Resignation’ means taking seriously the common criticisms of Britain’s increasingly stagnant economy: burnout, concern for health, an overall lack of workplace support, the impossibility of further development, unpleasant work environments.

In a recent TUC survey of union safety reps, 70% of workers listed ‘stress’ as the biggest worry they face, followed by bullying and harassment (48%) and overwork (35%). Millions of people have now suffered from a serious inability to focus on their personal lives, and the pandemic has clearly brought about a re-evaluation of priorities. At the time of writing, there are over 180,000 vacant hospitality jobs.

In context, this shouldn’t come as a surprise—it’s stressful work. With safety regulations removed early this summer, waiters and floor staff have been burdened with the responsibility of enforcing Covid safety themselves. Lily, who works at a global-chain members’ club in London, supported the pandemic laws, which helped clearly structure safer work environments in hospitality. ‘There used to be control over the headcount—there would be table service so that customers could socially distance properly,’ she tells Tribune, but ‘they even took that away from us.’

This has left staff and venues close to breaking point. Workers have been reporting unprecedented levels of burnout, as customers have flooded back to restaurants and bars eager to reconnect with loved ones post-lockdown. With the existing labour shortages on top, workers have been faced with an overwhelming workload. One worker who left working in a hotel after five years told Tribune how they had a mental breakdown by the hotel pool: ‘I couldn’t read anymore. I couldn’t recognise myself in the mirror.’

With many venues already relying on skeletal teams to function, many were forced to close down before the usual Christmas rush—itself dented by mass cancellations—and are now struggling to entice many to come out in January. One in five restaurants were temporarily closed over the past three months. The trade body UK Hospitality has stated that there are currently 188,000 open vacancies across the industry.

This is only one aspect of the service industry crisis. Sectors like hospitality are marred by longstanding instances of safety issues, poor pay, and conditions that are unpredictable and volatile. But the combination of labour shortages, supply chain issues, safety questions and government ineptitude can create the perfect storm for unionising and making collective demands for real change in the sector.

In Britain, employers have been panicking over retention for some time now. Some workplaces have attempted to tempt staff back with pay rises or are incentivising them with the possibility of internal promotion. According to a survey by Deliveroo, 90% of restaurants have said they have raised the wages of cooks to attract new talent.

But this may not even be enough. Many skilled hospitality staff are constantly on the lookout for new work or new challenges; maybe another bar across the road is hiring, or workers are interested in going into higher education to find better work (or at least some intellectual stimulation during a deeply unstable period).

One worker who preferred to remain anonymous told Tribune about how many colleagues are leaving their work, such as a head chef who had ‘called it a day’ and gone to find work as an Amazon driver. ‘The unpredictable hours and overwork was too much for my colleague,’ he said. ‘He would rather spend his time with his family.’

In this context, it should be clear to all but the most exploitative of employers that hundreds of thousands of workers are drawing the line on how much their efforts are worth. Stifling wages and treating people like dirt is becoming increasingly unsustainable, and—for once—might be coming at a cost.

But the benefits of moving from one bad workplace to another is limited. There is nothing to stop employers from issuing new contracts later down the line when the market stabilises in their favour. Rather than quit, this moment presents a significant opportunity to leverage worker power.

Workers are beginning to negotiate better conditions up and down the UK. In Glasgow and Dundee this month, around 80 workers at the Macmerry 300 bar chain signed a grievance claiming that they had faced poor Covid-related workplace safety, bullying and harassment, and issues related to unpaid wages, holidays and sick pay. This has not been without fierce opposition from the company, who have allegedly victimised a union member, and closed the King of Islington, a bar which happens to have had 100% union density. Following public pressure and continued action, the pub has now reopened, and unpaid wages are now appearing in bank accounts.

Meanwhile, in a top members club in London which employs almost 3,400 workers globally, workers are finally beginning to discuss improving their work-life balance. Lily—who is using a pseudonym—is a union member and told Tribune how how ‘after furlough, going back to 12-hour plus shifts five or six times a week felt impossible’. After applying collective pressure, workers are now gaining greater control over their shift patterns. Lily’s suggestion to other workers in the same situation is ‘don’t quit—demand more. Demand more money, demand better hours. If employers are serious about retention they will work with you.’

Another major concern Lily highlighted is accessing safe transport home after work for low- wage late-night hospitality workers. ‘Staff have been burgled and attacked,’ she said. ‘Employers should be organising transport and safety at night. I don’t want the girls to be taking the bus—they get followed by men in the street.’ Staff will soon be demanding union recognition over these matters and arranging transportation for workers who finish their shifts late. ‘As workers, the power is in our hands,’ Lily said.

The potential for these unionisation campaigns to spread is enormous. In November, Starbucks workers in a Buffalo, New York branch voted to unionise, despite a protracted union-busting effort by the company. At first glance, the unionisation of a single coffee shop may not seem like a big deal, but it could signal a great shift in workplace power. Now 26 shops have taken steps to unionise of the 9,000 company owned locations across the US.

We shouldn’t be quitting one rubbish job for another—we should fight in our workplaces for respect, fair treatment, and good pay across the sector. Statistics from the ONS Labour Force Survey show that on average, union members earn much higher pay and have better sickness and holiday benefits than non-union members.

Moreover, issues like bullying and harassment are endemic in non-union workplaces—this won’t end by quitting and signing a new contract elsewhere. Keeta, a lead activist at Draffens in Dundee (a Macmerry 300 chain pub) has said that ‘the bottom line is that, because of the lack of union representation in the industry, if you decide to get a new job, the likelihood is that the other job is likely to be just as bad if not worse.’

Why run away when the opportunity to improve your work through your union is right there? ‘It’s just a cycle of abuse where someone else takes the bad job and you carry on elsewhere,’ she says, ‘all the while employers continue to get away with bad practices.’ Now is the time not to quit, but to build unions, as every single worker deserves to enjoy their day at work. This is a major opportunity for workers and their unions to take back control and make their demands known. This is the time to fight for a better hospitality sector.