Big Issue Vendor

Britain, like Tim Martin, has to learn to make hospitality a viable career

In the short-term, our Big Issue focus will remain trying to help as many people who need it avoid homelessness by getting work.
An empty Wetherspoons bar in Brigg, north Lincolnshire. This could become a more common sight if hospitality can't fix its recruitment crisis. Image: John Rutter/Flickr

Sympathy for Tim Martin is at a premium. The curiously coiffed arch-Brexiteer suddenly pleading for EU worker’s rights has been one of the less expected headlines of recent times.

Martin is the founder and chairman of Wetherspoons, a chain of over 870 pubs across the UK. Until lockdown, they employed over 40,000 people. Martin was a very vocal advocate for Brexit. He used the in-house marketing material of Wetherspoons to make the case. He made a Brexit tour of Britain calling in to talk to punters in his pubs. He spoke about the massive financial gains to come across any media outlet that would have him.

Now, he has appeared to make an astonishing reverse. Martin told the Daily Telegraph of recruitment problems post-lockdown and suggested an easing of restrictions to allow easier access to EU staff. The Wetherspoon’s share price dipped. So, Martin did a quick shuffle and said he’d been misrepresented.

Regardless, schadenfreude rang out.

The curious thing is that on the surface a need for staff at present, as many people are coming out of lockdown and looking at furlough payments ending, is surely a good thing. For a year at The Big Issue we have been advocating the Ride Out Recession Alliance, a means of keeping people in work and in homes. We want to avoid a massive surge in homelessness, a surge that would throw tens of thousands of people and families into destitution, hammering them now and for a generation to come.

The cost, financially and on every conceivable human level, would be catastrophic. We also came up with the RORA toolkit, offering help in finding work, access to a jobs site, tips and advice. We have been focused. But if jobs are there, yet remain unfilled, there is another issue to get hold of.

Our cover star last week, Fred Sirieix, saw it clearly. Certain careers, particularly those in hospitality, are not valued enough in the UK. It follows that there is underfunding in the education of people through those careers. As the son of a time-served barman (and yes, that was a respected route in ’60s Ireland) I understand clearly the value of the trade. But as a career route it’s not held up a lot now.

There are no way easy ways round this. Training and better pay will help. And if the pay is better, ultimately customers will have to pay more. We need to get ready for that.

There are two other issues. One of them Tim Martin saw (or didn’t, depending on who he is talking to), is the huge decline in European migrant workers. Anecdotally, for instance, hospitality owners in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland are being hurt by this.

The other is the reality of how hard the work is. A restaurateur in Glasgow told me that many places are struggling to find chefs at present. During lockdown many chefs found work as drivers. And while that work is tough, the hours and conditions aren’t always as demanding as a busy kitchen. They don’t fancy heading back in. When Gregg and John tell Masterchef contestants that cooking doesn’t get any tougher than this, they clearly aren’t talking about real, working kitchens.

There are no way easy ways round this. In the long-term, Britain has to learn to make the hospitality trade respected and viable. Training and better pay will help. And if the pay is better, ultimately customers will have to pay more. We need to get ready for that.

In the short-term, our Big Issue focus will remain trying to help as many people who need it avoid homelessness by getting work. We will continue to partner with groups and organisations united in the same goal.

Tim Martin will be delighted.

The Big Issue is offering free training and job search help to anyone who needs it with our new RORA Jobs and Training Toolkit. Sign up to receive a free three-month digital subscription to The Big Issue, access to dozens of free or discounted online training courses and the ability to search hundreds of thousands of jobs.

If you are out of work or worried about work and looking for immediate, practical advice call The Big Issue Jobs helpline on 0204 534 2810 or email RORAhelp@momentagroup.com