I’ve worked in the hospitality industry for the majority of the last decade, steadily making my way up a greasy and demanding ladder, more out of necessity than choice. Serving people food and drink is the kind of affective labour millions of people turn to when they need money, and before you know it you’re in an interview telling someone about your ‘passion for customer service’ in the hope that by talking about it you can will it into existence.
This kind of work-life progression is one I imagine the migrant workers who were forcibly deported by the burger chain Byron two weeks ago would recognise, however vast the differences in our experiences have been. I work for a larger chain than Byron – a household name with a huge market share that would have been unthinkable without the labour of thousands of workers from outside the UK. British people don’t want to do this work. That’s not to say they don’t do it, but in my experience it’s migrant workers who are willing take on the 14-hour shifts – opting out of the working time directive, breaks only for cigarettes, food if you’re lucky – in exchange for the faint promise of security in a country often determined to remind you you’re an outsider at best, an outlaw at worst.
In my second restaurant I met Weronika, a Polish woman in her mid-30s with two kids, who excitedly told me she works 10am till close, five days a week. That’s five 14-hour shifts in a row. “Five doubles, yes,” she grinned, pleased with the achievement of securing those hours and the money to take home to her tiny girls who she barely sees.
If it seems inhuman to ask people to do work like this, it’s more inhuman still to give them those hours for as long as it’s convenient for you, then shop them in to the Home Office to be deported without their belongings or a chance to say goodbye the second you are at risk. It’s inhuman, in short, to be Byron Burgers.
Research undertaken by People1st, the human resources and employment consultancy, found that 26% of all hospitality workers were born outside the UK. They make up 37% of ‘skilled’ roles, such as chefs, and 28% of management. Without them our high streets would be unrecognisable. Certainly in my company I can think of several restaurants that would be left with only two or three members of staff. The potential for withdrawal of labour then, seems clear.
Unfortunately, organisation for better pay and conditions within the workforce is rare, most probably because of time poverty. But organisation can be dangerous, too. In 2009 a group of cleaners at the School of Oriental and African Studies who had recently won union recognition and campaigned for the London living wage were called to an emergency meeting only to be met with 40 immigration officers questioning them for deportation. Six were deported immediately, two detained.
The exploitation and mistreatment of low-paid workers is of course nothing new, but there’s been speculation that this new round of raids has been spurred on by June’s Brexit vote. Certainly the demonstrable intensification of anti-immigrant sentiment, coupled with the ascension of virulent authoritarian Theresa May to Downing Street make for an environment even more hostile to non-British workers than we were already seeing.
The most disturbing thing to me in these recent developments is the level of planning that must necessarily have gone into the execution of this betrayal.
In restaurant management, everything is meticulously planned. I can tell you weeks in advance how much money I expect to take and how many hours of staffing I will need to achieve it on a given Wednesday. Forecasting and rotas are tight, and everything is carefully monitored and recorded – from fridge temperatures to how many grammes of cucumber we threw away last night. It’s inconceivable to me that the removal of a significant proportion of back of house staff from Byron’s overall operation could have happened without the knowledge of their in-restaurant management.
The whole thing seems somehow less horrifying if we imagine it to be top-tier organised and deployed – ‘head office’ conspires to organise a fake meeting, the planning is undertaken by people a couple of levels above, people who don’t work with and laugh with the deportees themselves day in day out, who don’t know the names of their children and where they go to school. But it can’t have been like that. Rotas displayed must have continued to show the staff who were at risk on their normal shifts, lest they suspect something, but at the same time those shifts would have to be covered. Management would need back up for how they would cope following the raid, and presumably they would need that back-up to keep quiet too.
Such an operation relies not just on the element of surprise, but on complicity and silence.
If this is how it indeed played out, it confirms some of my worst suspicions about the industry – that it attracts and rewards people with a sort of background hum of authoritarianism. Certainly you can’t get by in it without a willingness to follow the rules, but sometimes they need to be questioned. Adherence to brand standards is one of the most prized behaviours in restaurant chains – the irony of a constant drive towards homogenisation in an industry entirely dependent on the heterogeneity of its workers hasn’t escaped me. Similarly the ways to step out of line are varied and ever-present. The huge amounts of waste food that can’t be given to the homeless for fear of litigation are a testament to this – technically giving away any of it is gross misconduct for which people can be (and have been) fired. It’s a rule, but is it worth revering? Is it not another symptom of a broken system that should be challenged?
Last week, my employer sent out an email responding to the Byron story, reminding everyone to be vigilant, congratulating us on our company’s excellent record for following the rules regarding immigration. We were reminded to keep on top of right-to-work documentation and ensure we are ending contracts when visas expire. No mention of attempting to keep our valuable and valued staff through helping with applications or exploring routes to help them remain in the country. Playing by the rules in this case means get them out. The people on whom the industry depends are yet again shown to be expendable.
So what can be done? I happen to think that management is in an especially well-placed position here to do good. Employers could be the ones helping to fill out prohibitively opaque residency forms, using contacts and experience to help their colleagues and employees to relative safety. I helped one of my employees fill in a 92-page permanent residency application ahead of the EU referendum, the experience of which gave me a new understanding of the legal obstacle course I’ve been lucky enough to avoid.
Of course this is working within the system rather than destroying it, but solidarity is our greatest weapon here. If we can help to secure futures for our friends and comrades in the short term, I feel we have a duty to do that. ‘Never be a manager’ is something I’ve heard from otherwise intelligent people on more than one occasion – but opportunities to take charge and change the way things are done are valuable; be a manager if necessary, but be the right kind.
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