Giving employees back their voice
Dr Deirdre Curran and Dr Mary Farrell understand the unique challenges faced by employers and employees in hospitality. They’ve conducted some research into the issue of employing hospitality staff and both now see a need for more high-quality independent research to continue informing this discussion.
Both women have spent a number of years conducting research into the ‘lived experience’ of hospitality workers in what’s otherwise a relatively data-free zone.
Their motive was twofold: to give voice to hospitality workers and to provoke debate leading to positive change.
“We’ve already been successful to some degree,” says Deirdre, “My research findings informed the recently-published Payment of Wages (Tips) Act 2022 and both Mary and I contributed to an Oireachtas Committee exploration of ‘Working Conditions and Skills Shortages in Ireland’s Tourism and Hospitality Sector’.”
This multi-stakeholder exploration culminated in the publication of a 2022 government report containing 11 recommendations for reform in the sector.
Both Deirdre and Mary have availed of every platform to progress this debate, hence the recent Open Letter to the industry.
“The more widespread the information is shared the more likely workers’ voices will be heard,” says Mary, “It was very important to disseminate the research to industry stakeholders to help them understand workers grievances and how they can be addressed. “For industry employers (corporate or independent) success post-Covid will be influenced by those who proactively address employees’ concerns, are recognised as good employers and restore credible career options in the industry.”
The Covid hiatus served to highlight longstanding industry shortcomings that could no longer be ignored.
Deirdre conducted a limited project exploring the reasons why some workers left while others stayed. She found that 46% stayed in their current job while 27% moved out of the sector, 15% moved to another job within the sector and 12% were made redundant. This project is currently being written-up.
Onus on trade
Both women believe that if it wants to thrive post-Covid the onus is now on the licensed trade to acknowledge employees’ (or those considering entering this work space) issues and concerns; the onus is on employers to seek ways to address these issues on a practical level within the work environment (ie address sexual harassment, pay rates, working hours) and to think about reinventing how the licensed trade actually operates going forward.
“There are new ways of thinking about how the licensing trade can work to take account of improved staff working conditions and creating a sustainable business,” believes Mary.
So how could employers in the licensed trade better utilise the experience of their staff?
“The first suggestion we’d make is to find ways to allow your workers have a voice,” ventures Deirdre, “Our research shows that workers know what’s wrong and they know how to make it right. They’re intelligent thinking human beings who, if given the opportunity, can come up with excellent suggestions for improvement.
“Secondly, make sure your workers get the employment rights they’re entitled to in relation to pay, working hours, pay slips, holiday pay etc.
“Thirdly, make changes so that your employees can develop a career within your employment that allows them to live with dignity. Encourage them to stay with incentives of pay increases, promotion opportunities, training programmes, work-life balance initiatives etc.
“Fourthly, acknowledge, recognise and highlight good experiences and good practice. “Finally, work with all your stakeholders to address the shortcomings of working conditions within the licensed trade with tangible, sustainable measures.”
Workers suggestions for improvement
Prior to Covid Mary’s research identified some critical issues around family and caregiving for chefs (and presumably for other staff).
The critical issues included timely and reasonable rostering of working hours, time off, late nights, women in their 30s leaving the work place to have children, choosing part-time roles or leaving the sector completely.
“Child-bearing years and family life play important roles in women’s perception of the long-term viability of chef careers,” says Mary, “Women continue to – and are expected to – carry-out the lion’s share of caring and family roles and therefore they’re at a disadvantage – there can be a bias against their promotion because of this.
“This is now becoming an issue for men – some have revaluated their core values and recognise the value of being available for their families. Anecdotally the low rate of paternity leave allowances has been cited as insufficient to compensate for taking this time off. Consider the low-paid sector where an ability to save money in order to supplement your paternity leave pay may be incredibly difficult or impossible.”
Offer career opportunities
The research shows that employees are indeed passionate about working in hospitality.
“When asked ‘What do you most like about working in hospitality?’ the three common answers were (i) the people (colleagues, customers etc), (ii) the satisfaction of delivering good service and (iii) the ‘buzz’ and variety of the work,” points out Deirdre, “So you’re starting on a winner. These workers want to stay. Make it easy for them to do so by offering opportunities for this to be a career (as is the case in some EU countries).”
Mary also found that equal pay and stability of employment for female chefs remain “unaddressed” issues on a national level.
“There has been a notable increase in chefs’ pay rates due to the serious labour shortage,” she observes, “However there’s a lack of transparency around the rates of pay by gender. We know that there’s a very real gender pay gap in Ireland. Recent legislation requires larger companies (over 250 staff) to publish their gender pay gap. However this does not exist for small firms, so there’s no transparency here and no guarantee that women will be paid on an equal basis to their male counterparts.”
Men hold the vast majority of the senior chef roles. For women, promotion is very challenging where bias favours promoting men. There’s also a lack of role models in senior roles. Issues for women exist around the challenges of balancing caring roles/family with more senior demanding chef roles, she points out.
Implementing the 11 recommendations of the Oireachtas Report on working conditions and skills shortages would be “an excellent framework for positive change” they believe.
“This report was heavily informed by our research findings,” states Deirdre, “In particular, we recommend an oversight body that would ensure high standards across the sector. This body could begin by developing a National standardised Code of Conduct that’s mandatory and legally-binding for the sector.”
They point out too that responsibility at government level stretches across at least three ministerial departments: Tourism, Enterprise & Trade and Education. This is less than ideal and means that issues either fall between the stools or get caught up in endless bureaucracy.
“Workers must be afforded better voice whether that’s through trade unions or otherwise,” says Mary, “We accept that the sector is suffering from a labour shortage. We accept that importing labour from the EU and beyond is part of the solution. But work permits and visas must come with conditions to ensure that these workers are not excessively exploited.
“Hospitality workers do not (in the main) use the services of the Workplace Relations Commission. However, the WRC Inspection Service has an important role to play. This Service is historically under-resourced and this needs to be addressed.”
Failte Ireland’s Excellent Employer initiative is welcome but needs to be examined to ensure that it’s measuring the ingredients of an excellent employer, they believe.
Finally, the research they’ve conducted is but a modest beginning.
“There’s a dire need for more high-quality, independent research so that debates on these issues can be informed by evidence,” states Mary.
Deirdre would envisage giving workers their rights as a minimum standard, finding ways to tap into their voice and introducing initiatives for work-life balance as being the three most important suggestions given to her in her research from staff as to suggested changes they’d like to see.
“Through our research, we’ve built a wonderful collection of hospitality employer allies who’re willing to review the evidence, listen to workers and face the hard truths,” states their Open Letter.
These ‘hard truths’ include unsociable and excessive working hours, addiction and mental health issues, breaches of employment rights and lack of employee voice.