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It’s time to end the scandalous low-pay, low-rights culture that grips the hospitality sector

5 min read

It would be no surprise if many of the EU workers leaving the UK are doing so because of a toxic combination of post-Brexit insecurity, a volatile labour market and poor working terms and conditions.

Hospitality bosses have sounded the alarm about staff shortages in recent months, blaming Brexit, the coronavirus pandemic, and in some cases, even the furlough scheme. But these explanations for the supposed hiring crisis in hospitality need a closer look.

The problem is not the furlough scheme, as certain industry bosses have suggested.

The scheme – which is triggered by bosses rather than workers – has in fact been a lifeline for many hospitality businesses for retaining staff during lockdowns.

Nor is the solution just issuing more temporary visas to recruit workers from Europe, as other prominent figures have suggested.

That’s because while it is true the sector is facing a worker shortage – more critically, it is facing a decent wage and rights shortage.

For years, low pay and low rights have been endemic in the hospitality sector. And so often, it has been migrant workers who have been at the sharp end – treated as a source of cheap, disposable labour by bad bosses.

It would be no surprise if many of the EU workers leaving the UK are doing so because of a toxic combination of post-Brexit insecurity, a volatile labour market and poor working terms and conditions.

Yesterday’s deadline for settled status applications has compounded the situation for many EU workers

This should be a wakeup call. It’s time to end the scandalous low pay-low rights culture that grips the hospitality sector.

Speaking to union members and organisers, I have heard countless egregious examples of EU worker mistreatment in the industry.

Take the fifteen workers at the Fishers’ Hotel who were told, just days before Christmas, that their employment had been terminated and were evicted from their homes, which was staff accommodation. These workers were from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Spain – many had nowhere to go and were without settled status which would give them the right to remain in the UK.

This story is not unusual. And yesterday’s deadline for settled status applications has compounded the situation for many EU workers – creating a cliff edge for rights and yet further uncertainty.

But even if settled status is granted, that doesn’t necessarily mean peace of mind.

Almost half of those who have applied for settled status have only received ‘pre-settled’ status – this gives workers five years’ right to remain in the UK, after which they risk becoming undocumented and unable to claim employment rights. 

That’s why we have been calling for a common sense approach: all EU citizens who were in the UK ahead of the end of the transition period should be granted permanent status in the UK without the need to make an application.

Undocumented workers should be able to claim employment rights too – this would help prevent some of the most heinous worker exploitation that takes place in the UK. And ministers must repeal the ‘hostile environment’ laws that criminalise working outside the terms of a visa.

Action on immigration status alone won’t solve the industry’s problems though. As we continue to grapple with the pandemic, it’s clear the chancellor must extend the furlough scheme for as long as is needed – holding off any hike in employer contributions until all restrictions have been lifted.

But fundamentally, the way we deliver better standards is by improving working terms and conditions across the board, for all workers. A more stable, better paid industry would help attract and retain workers too.

The facts speak for themselves. Of all the sectors, accommodation and food has the highest number (13 per cent) of workers on a zero-hours contract.

And then look at earnings. A whopping 83% of bar staff earn under £10 an hour, and many don’t even make the legal minimum. In 2020, more than one in seven workers in accommodation and food were paid below the minimum wage – when you include furloughed employees, it's a third.

Low pay and insecure work is the everyday reality for so many in the hospitality sector in the UK – this is the case whether you’re from Bratislava or Bury.

This has to change. Everyone deserves a decent, secure job they can raise a family and build a life on. 

That means raising the national minimum wage to £10 an hour, banning zero hours contracts and sorting out our decrepit enforcement system so that bad bosses aren’t let off the hook. And it means ensuring trade unions can access workplaces.

This shouldn’t be a tough ask for a government which promised to make the UK best place in the world to work after Brexit.

Higher wages and better rights have to be the foundation of our successful economic recovery. And it must be for all workers – toxic divisions only drive social tensions and undercutting.

As the pandemic begins to recede and more of the economy opens, we have a once in a generation opportunity to build back fairer. Ministers must grasp it with both hands.


Frances O’Grady is the TUC General Secretary.

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