The Guardian published today a good article about the food industry, based on interviews with staff from various establishments around London.
‘The manager was selling coke to staff’: the truth about top restaurants
Periodically, a piece like this gets published and makes the rounds. It’s not really new information, but it does reiterate what a shit industry ours can be if the wrong people are in charge. Compounding this is the nature of work-life in the UK. As I’ve written before, the labor laws in this country are backwards, retrograde, abusive, and downright Dickensian. For example, I recently learned that as chefs, if we accidentally injure someone or make them sick, we are personally liable. As in, the diner could sue us directly for damages. Contrast this with the more reasonable US laws that the employer’s insurance largely indemnifies the employee from responsibility for injuries caused.
One of the biggest shocks for me in this article is that it’s completely allowed to charge the waiter if someone dines and dashes. This is so unethical based on what I would consider normal humane practices. Charging the employee for customer theft? This is so beyond the pale I can barely stand it.
Other problems common to most of these interviews are the regular litany of pay rates and gratuities, required shift lengths, and abusive managers. We’ve all heard about this before, like I said, it’s not new, but it’s always worth discussing.
Minimum wage in London is pretty shit with the minimum wage being near the equivalent of $9/hr, but comparatively it was much better before the Pound Sterling took a dive because of the Brexit vote. Adjust this rate for the cost of living in London, though, and you realize that these are barely subsistence wages. Considering that there’s no such thing as mandatory overtime pay in this country, you get the situation where chefs have to work 60+ hours per week just to make ends meet. Imagine if these chefs have children to support. Ironically, it’s surprising these chefs can put food on their own tables with these incomes.
Gratuities here have the same problem they do back in the States, what with employer theft (See: Michel Roux), skimming, and the nature of Britishers just not having a culture of tipping in the first place.
Shift lengths in kitchens are ridiculous, too. There is no reason here in the UK to hire one person to work 70 hours when you could hire two people to work 35 hours. In the States, doing so would be a huge savings for the employer as there would be no overtime pay due, but here in the UK, it doesn’t cost any extra to force an employee to work more than the common limit of 48 hours. But there’s not much benefit, either; it just breeds resentment and burned out staff.
Abusive managers… Well, this one topic could support its own full-length blog post. Short version: There is no reason, ever, to dish out abuse to your employee. Not physically, not verbally, and not passive-aggressively either, behind their backs or on social media. If you’re in charge, and you have a problem with an employee, talk to them directly, in private, and resolve the issue or fire the employee. Just take care of it like a professional and like an adult. You’re the fucking chef, so act like one.
Solution: Better labor laws
The UK needs better labor laws, full stop. Sadly, because of the self-inflicted wound of the Brexit, I doubt anything is going to get better any time soon. But if it did, here’s what would happen. The government should mandate a better pay rate floor, maybe adjustable based on the locale, pegged to an annual assessment of the cost of living. The pay rate floor would apply to every hour worked and it would mandate a US-style overtime for every hour worked over the UK standard 48 hours. In addition, there would be a maximum daily limit to hours worked, probably 12, and a maximum number of work days in a row, say 7, with two consecutive days off. Or one day off for every four worked, non-consecutive.
Solution: Eliminate tips
This sort of income is so problematic, I can’t imagine a solution that would work short of eliminating it all together. Tip-pooling, mandatory 12.5%, keep-what-you-earn, etc. None of it works and can even make employees turn against each other. If we mandate a high enough pay floor and raise the rates of dining out for the clients, this would solve most of the problems tipping creates. Sure, some waiters in some restaurants aren’t going home anymore with hundreds of dollars after a 9-hour shift, but we would have an equitable situation between the Front and Back of the House. And if tips still come in, it should go straight to the employees to share, no skimming off the top by the employer at all under any circumstances.
Solution: Vote with our feet
If you’re an employee receiving abuse, please do something about it. I’m not saying you have to leave your job, because I know that might be very difficult in a practical sense. But at the very least, stand up for yourself and let your abuser know you won’t take it anymore. Document what happens. Talk to other witnesses to back up your claim. No one, regardless of the situation deserves to be yelled at or abused. Ever. If you see something like this happen, protect your team. Chefs always talk a tough game about “having your back” but when the shit hits the fan, chefs by nature, have a tendency to blame the victim. Remember, even if the employee fucked up, it is completely inappropriate to yell at them or abuse them in anyway.
If you can, unionize. I have no idea how this works in the UK and I suspect that dear old (dead) Maggie fucked this one up good for the working stiffs, but we need to stick together in some fashion. And if it’s even remotely possible, quit. Immediately. There are tons of jobs for chefs out there; all I hear every day is how hiring managers can’t find good chefs. And if a place can’t keep its staff, guess what’s going to happen: A restaurant without staff won’t be a restaurant for long.
Solution: No more romanticism
Chefs have a huge weakness and strong tendency for idol-worship, especially if said idol is a total prick. This has to stop. We must stop lionizing accomplished/famous/celebrity chefs who abuse or denigrate their team. You may console yourself that you’re learning a lot by being in his kitchen (because honestly, it’s almost always a man), but I’ve talked to way too many chefs who primarily focus on all the abuse they suffered, not the techniques they learned or the experience they gained.
For the diners, this one is your responsibility, too. The concept of “ethical dining” (which has been taken to ridiculous extremes in my home town Seattle) should also include evaluating the ethics of the chef and managers themselves. Way too often (as mentioned at the top of the Guardian article) the diner has no idea about how the kitchen is run, and quite honestly they don’t want to know. If it’s the hot new hipster joint serving freeze-dried kim-chi foam seasoned with imported za’atar on chef-raised pork belly from a pig named Ronald topped with deep-fried reindeer moss, I guarantee most foodies will sell out their morals in an instant just to be part of the cool kid scene. But don’t. If you truly care about the ethics of food, doing some sort of accountability background check on the chef is a must.
Back in reality
Sadly, I think there’s way too much going on in the industry for anything I suggest to actually take hold. I think it all really comes down to the employee to be the change we want to see. Unfortunately, we are fighting an uphill battle against what is probably the second-oldest industry. The best we can reasonably expect is that we are our own agent and we stop taking shit off our employers.