An article by a member of the Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement looking at life in the hospitality industry.
I have spent the bulk of my working life doing various hospitality work, everything from washing dishes to bartending to delivering pizzas. At the moment I’m working at a small restaurant in Central Wellington which basically makes glorified fast food for pretentious rich people; those members of the upper-echelons of the public service who ask for trim-soya milk in their decaffeinated lattes. If you live in Wellington you’ll know the type I’m talking about.
As with my previous jobs I am currently on minimum wage and am not holding my breath for a pay rise any time in the next decade. There is no union in my workplace, actually nobody has even signed a contract with the boss, and what’s more we know that there are countless unemployed workers who would happily do our job. The boss knows that we know this and so we have little option but to accept our crappy wages and hope that we actually get paid for all the hours we work (it is not uncommon for staff to be underpaid in many workplaces when the boss reckons they can get away with it). What’s more there is one young guy, a recently arrived immigrant who speaks hardly any English, who is not being paid a cent. He does the dishes on our busy nights in return for a reference from our boss, he has been doing this for months. One time I heard our boss joking to a co-worker about how he can just make him do all the nasty, boring jobs. My blood boiled with class hatred but I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut.
Anyone who has worked in the service industry will agree that it is quite a schizophrenic existence. That old slogan of the bosses ‘the customer is always right’ becomes a mantra which forces you to silently grit your teeth time and again when ‘the customer’ treats you like a soulless machine. Just as you might whack a television when it stops working, so some individuals will become abusive toward a front of house worker when their food is slightly late, eftpos machine won’t work, order taken down wrong and so on. At a previous job I was told on my first day that our ‘thing’ is that we’re always friendly and smiling (clearly the boss was thinking way outside the box). In other words the subtle facial expressions which human beings use to communicate mood and emotion belong to someone else when you punch that time clock, they belong to the company. And the company is invariably cheerful. This is alienation at its finest, the total separation between body and mind. The first and most natural act of rebellion for any service worker is inevitably the rebellion against this absurdity, and believe me this is very common. Whether the bosses like it or not, most service workers aren’t going to bother smiling when they’re upset. When I see my fellow workers steal back a life which doesn’t really belong to them, it fills me with hope.
Organising to fight for our interests as hospo workers is an incredibly difficult task. Not only is industrial law weighted in the interests of the bosses, it is common practice for service industry bosses to ignore some of the few work rights we still have. For example as I mentioned earlier I am not on a contract, which is illegal. I didn’t get paid my full wages over Easter, despite being assured I would. I have friends who have been paid $10/hour cash in hand, no contract. One was simply fired for no reason, employed during the busy season and suddenly let go, with rent and bills to pay. An important factor here is naked class collaboration. Many small businesses foster an atmosphere where you feel the business may be constantly on the edge, so it is not uncommon for staff to help out by working overtime without pay, not asking for pay rises, more shifts and, shamefully, they say nothing when someone is either paid peanuts or fired on a whim. What’s more it is not uncommon for the boss to actually spend the most time at the workplace when it is a small business, so you get to know them personally. Inevitably this complicates things as it is difficult to stick up for yourself when you feel sorry for your boss and when your co-workers identify with the workplace. Further, the intense competition amongst cafes, restaurants and bars in Wellington means that militancy in one workplace is likely to just put the boss out of business very quickly. Of course when I find myself in sympathy with the boss I just have to remind myself that, should the business go tits up, he will at least have property to sell. Whereas the rest of us will be back where we started; with little of value on the ‘free’ market except our lives. Which are worth 13 bucks an hour apparently.
Although the general picture may be bleak, there is already a tendency toward resistance which can be built upon. The class relations of capitalist society compel us to resist, even if we are not all that conscious of it. Theft is common. I remember at a previous job one of my co-workers actually told me off for not stealing enough! Although it can be a somewhat atomised method of struggle, theft becomes collective when it requires the complicity of other workers who don’t tell the boss. Another method is simple sabotage, this is useful when you are understaffed and being made to do more than one job. Basically you just do a very sloppy job, on purpose, so that the boss puts another person on during that shift. This is good because you can slow down the work to a comfortable pace and provide another shift so that someone new is hired or someone else just gets more shifts. Depending on your position in the production process sabotage can be done individually, but it is obviously more effective if implemented as a conscious, collective action. Further, the goal of such action should not be limited to the immediate gains being sought, but also developing trust and fraternity amongst workers. Such relationships make the work more enjoyable and also make it easier to stick up for ourselves since a coherent group is stronger than any one individual.
Funnily enough, I actually kind of like my job. Those tasks which many people may find tedious and irritating, like chopping vegetables, are actually very relaxing and pleasurable for me. When I do a good job making some food naturally I feel proud of myself. Nevertheless I hate the fact that someone else makes money off of something I enjoy, and frankly I’m not about to use that as an excuse to just get exploited and treated like dirt as if i’m a sucker. Doing a job you are passionate about is possibly the most effective way of turning yourself into a passionless beast. Despite the impression a person may get from celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver, there are bugger all professional chefs out there who actually give a toss about food once they’ve been in the industry for any length of time. That’s because wage labour sucks the life out of you. I hate getting bossed around by someone who only cares about their profit margins, and I hate watching people spend more in one sitting than I will make in an entire shift. The only thing that really makes the job bearable are the social bonds I form with my co-workers, bonds which necessarily reflect the shared misery of workers. These bonds are the only force which will ever break capitalism. The bosses have the entire world, whereas all we have is each other.
For a world without bosses!
This article was originally published in the July 2011 issue of Solidarity, free newssheet of the Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement.
"At the moment I’m working at
"At the moment I’m working at a small restaurant in Central Wellington which basically makes glorified fast food for pretentious rich people; those members of the upper-echelons of the public service who ask for trim-soya milk in their decaffeinated lattes."
I threw up in my mouth a little bit.