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Hospitality staff shortage: ‘I thought, there’s more to life than this’

Low pay, poor working conditions and Brexit are driving people away from jobs in bars and restaurants. The hospitality staff shortage won't change until the treatment of staff improves, workers and unions told The Big Issue
There are as many as 73,000 hospitality vacancies in the UK job market, Adzuna said. Image: Pexels

Lockdown is lifting and Brits are headed to the pub en masse. But after a year of furlough and stop-start reopenings, the number of workers ready to greet them is dwindling. The hospitality sector has a staffing crisis.

Nearly 190,000 workers are needed to prop up the sector in the post-lockdown boom, industry body UKHospitality said. And there are currently more than 73,000 vacancies in UK pubs, bars, restaurants, cafes and more, according to online jobs board Adzuna. 

If you ask the workers and trade unions, it is low pay, poor conditions and precarious contracts which are driving hospitality staff to change careers.

“I am not surprised at all,” Robb Kirby-Wilson, a Northampton resident, told The Big Issue. The 48-year-old left his bar job during the pandemic after 25 years in the industry.

“I had enough of the unsociable hours, I had enough of the low wages, I had enough of being spoken to like a second-class citizen. I got to the point of thinking: there’s more to life than this,” he added. 

“My work-life balance was non-existent. I’d say I spent 80 per cent of my time at work, getting up at 7am to open the bar, get home really late after a shift, and repeat. I missed out on so many birthdays, anniversaries and other important things because I was working. I tried to make my life and the lives of other staff better. But I just couldn’t do it from behind a bar.”

Kirby-Wilson, who worked as a bar manager, suffered a broken leg in January 2020 and was subsequently signed off work to recover. By May, he was due to return but the UK was in its first lockdown, meaning he would be placed on furlough.

Robb Kirby-Wilson worked in bars for 25 years but decided to change careers during the pandemic. Hospitality staff shortage
Robb Kirby-Wilson
Robb Kirby-Wilson worked in bars for 25 years but decided to change careers during the pandemic. Image: Supplied

Time away from the bar gave him the headspace to reassess his career and work-life balance – as well as giving him the time to fill out job applications – an opportunity which he believes pushed others in the industry to leave industry behind, kickstarting a hospitality staff shortage.

“I realised I really didn’t want to go back,” he said. “I wanted a life and I wanted better pay. But last year gave me breathing space to commit to that.” He pulled his last pint on January 18, although he didn’t know it at the time. “I wish I had made that decision years ago.”

The average salary across the hospitality and catering sectors is £24,000, according to Adzuna, a full £10,000 lower than the average salary for other advertised jobs. 

“Sometimes getting by on those wages is okay, but only because you’re working loads of hours and can’t go anywhere to spend anything,” Kirby-Wilson said. “And it’s another story for people who are working part-time, or who might have kids or commitments at home. 

“I’ve worked with people who relied on tips to make ends meet. But in a lot of places, the tips all go in one pot anyway.”

The pandemic and Brexit were a double-whammy, as many European workers went back to their home countries with no desire to return to an unwelcoming UK. Official figures from March 2021 suggest a million people left the country in the space of a year.

“Let’s be clear, this problem has been staring us in the face ever since the government made clear what kind of Brexit deal it was going for,” Andy Prendergast, national secretary for trade union GMB, told The Big Issue. “Coronavirus has just exacerbated its effects. 

“Employers need to work with unions to deal with the long-established issues within the industry such as the perceived lack of status, lack of career opportunities and unsociable hours to create a more attractive career for workers moving forwards.” 

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After over two decades in the industry, the 48-year-old counted himself lucky to have secure hours as shrinking wage budgets and zero-hours contracts meant staff could be sent home early in a shift if business was quiet. 

“If things were dead, people would be told to leave two hours into an eight hour shift,” he told The Big Issue. “That’s probably £19 for the day. That’s not going to pay their bills.”

Hospitality staff face unfair treatment both from customers – “I’ve had things thrown at me from over the bar, I’ve been threatened with a pool cue” – and from employers, who treat staff like “conveyor belts”. 

Bosses would cut a person’s hours if they said they could not work a certain day or had to be home by a certain time for childcare, he said. Others would “get drunk and abuse staff with the customers”, while company heads would refuse to give workers time off at Christmas then close up head offices for a fortnight.

Tim Martin, Wetherspoons’ boss and one of the country’s most prominent Brexit supporters, wants the Prime Minister to make it easier for the hospitality sector to hire EU workers, the Telegraph reported, after the UK’s departure from the EU hit businesses’ ability to rely on staff from abroad. Meanwhile, workers are petitioning the company to pay staff double on bank holidays.

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The hospitality staff shortage meant pubs and restaurants were forced to close a number of venues to lunchtime customers, which Clive Watson – chairman of the City Pub Group – called “another kick in the wotsits”, according to the Telegraph. There are “just not the bodies out there to perform roles in the hospitality industry,” he said. 

“The truth is that in the short term coronavirus isn’t going anywhere,” added Prendergast, “so even if the government changed immigration rules, in the world of closed borders we’re not going to be able to attract migrant workers anytime soon. 

“The only sustainable plan is to make hospitality a high wage, high value sector, with better quality jobs. Any business that’s serious about that, should give us a call.”   

Brexit’s impact on the sector comes as no surprise to Northampton’s Kirby-Wilson, who said he worked with staff from abroad in every hospitality job he had.

“They are the hardest working colleagues you’ll meet yet they’re treated even worse in bars than people who are born in this country,” he said. “And they want more of them as staff to pay them the minimum wage he can get away with, give them zero-hour contracts, treat them as cheap labour. There’s no job security there. Sorry, Mr Wetherspoons, you voted for it.”

Less than a week after deciding to leave hospitality, Kirby-Wilson landed a new job as a carer. His job satisfaction is “through the roof” and he is always home by 9pm. 

“If the people running these big businesses paid the staff properly, gave them proper rights and treated them fairly, then people would want to go back. There wouldn’t be a hospitality staff shortage,” he said. “And I’ve had enough of the suggestion that people are sitting at home on furlough and don’t really want to go back, that they’ve got used to not working. 

“No, that’s a load of rubbish. Maybe they just don’t want to come and work for you.”

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