Twice in my recent past I’ve stood at a bar and started to seriously wonder if I’d become invisible. It’s not that the bar was particularly busy or short-staffed, merely that (try as I did) I couldn’t manage to get the staff’s attention as they brushed past, left & right, without any indication that they were aware of my existence. As an academic, whose current research obsession is working conditions in the hospitality sector, this got me wondering.
In this article I’ll share some of my wonderings with you along with some emerging findings from my current research and some suggestions for how to address some of the core challenges faced by the sector in general and the bar trade in particular.
What makes a good bartender?
A casual search of the internet begins to reveal some of the core traits of a competent bartender: engaging personality, attentiveness, communication skills (especially listening and eye-contact), memory, speed/efficiency, product knowledge and a high standard of customer service start to emerge as front-runners.
Managing a busy bar for a 6/8/10hr shift is no mean feat. Apart from the physical effort, it involves an element of what textbooks refer to as ’emotional labour’.
As well as selling a product and dealing with (sometimes challenging) customers, often under pressure bartenders are expected to regulate their emotions (ie perform) during their interactions with customers, co-workers and superiors. Regardless of the challenges of their own lives they’re expected to serve and – to some degree – entertain.
The importance of the industry to the Irish economy
According to the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland the Irish drinks and hospitality industry employs over 175,000 or nearly 8% of all Irish workers. The industry plays a huge role in our economy (see Ireland’s €5 Billion Hospitality Industry, Hospitality Skills Oversight Group Report 2018) and represents one of the fastest-growing sectors of our economy. While the high-street retail sector suffers from online alternatives, customers will continue to need to eat, drink and socialise on a face-to-face basis.
The hospitality sector generally – and the drinks industry in particular – are thus significant contributors to regional employment including a high proportion of non-national, seasonal/casual and part-time employment. More staff will be needed in the future to meet the human resource demands of forecast growth.
Challenges faced by employers and workers
These are challenging times for employers in the sector who face labour and skills shortages, a growing number of overseas visitors, the seasonal nature of demand, technological change, value-competitiveness and changing consumer demands (Expert Group on Future Skills Needs, 2015). Indeed addressing skills shortages and training appears among the top ten challenges facing the hospitality sector as identified by the Restaurants Association of Ireland while staff retention and recruitment is the second-biggest.
At the same time workers in the industry face the challenge of obtaining ‘decent’ jobs that afford them dignity and respect at work and the prospect of a fulfilled life outside work.
The International Labour Organisation as the global body responsible for determining international labour standards has published guidelines on ‘decent work and socially responsible tourism’. The ILO defines decent work as ‘opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity’ and it states that decent work explicitly includes the following six dimensions:
- Opportunities for work refers to the need for all persons who want work to be able to find work since decent work is not possible without work itself.
- Work in conditions of freedom underscores the fact that work should be freely chosen and not forced on individuals and that certain forms of work are not acceptable in the 21st Century (such as bonded labour, slave labour and child labour). It also means that workers are free to join workers organisations such as trade unions.
- Productive work is essential for workers to have acceptable livelihoods for themselves and their families, as well as to ensure sustainable development and competitiveness of enterprises and countries.
- Equity in work represents workers’ need to have fair and equitable treatment and opportunity in work. It encompasses absence of discrimination at work and in access to work and ability to balance work with family life.
- Security at work is mindful of the need to help safeguard health, pensions and livelihoods and to provide adequate financial and other protection in the event of health and other contingencies. It also recognises workers’ need to limit insecurity associated with the possible loss of work and livelihood.
- Dignity at work requires that workers be treated with respect at work and be able to voice concerns and participate in decision-making about working conditions. An essential ingredient is workers’ freedom to represent their interests collectively.
What my emerging research suggests
As an academic I believe that research has a role to play in helping employers address the challenges faced and in helping workers obtain such decent work. Action should be based on evidence and I’m currently working on a research agenda that will provide solid independent empirical data on the working conditions of employees in the Irish hospitality sector (including the drinks industry).
Along with a comprehensive survey (of 257 respondents) I’m conducting interviews with hospitality workers allowing them to share their lived experience of what it’s like to work in the industry. I also intend conducting a small number of ‘best practice’ case studies so that good learning can be shared.
The emerging findings of this research are, at times, disturbing.
Apart from extensive neglect of basic employment rights many of the workers I’m speaking to are experiencing unacceptable ill-treatment and their testimonies are compelling:
* 43% did not get a written statement of the terms of their employment
* 70% do not get an additional allowance for Sunday working
* 52% do not get their legal entitlement to rest breaks
* 76% report facing verbal abuse sometimes/often
* 64% report facing psychological abuse sometimes/often
* 63% witnessed/experienced bullying
* 55% witnessed/experienced harassment
* 47% were not given supportive feedback by their manager
* 23% either get no tips or the owner/manager keeps a portion of them.
* 47% said tips were distributed through some kind of system that was not always considered fair.
Where ill-treatment was experienced it was usually by someone in a position of power (owner/chef/supervisor). Most employees did not report incidents to anyone and the most common reasons were fear or a belief that nothing would change. 48% felt they have no opportunities for voice at work and very few are members of a trade union.
My intention is to shine a light on current practices and to provide data that will help to make a stronger argument for change in the sector for the benefit of all.
I recently interviewed Noel who has worked in the bar trade for four decades and who reminded me that on-the-ground staff often have excellent ideas for how performance could be improved.
Towards the end of our conversation I asked him what suggestions he could make for improving working conditions in the industry.
Without having to think too deeply he suggested: pay structures with opportunities for progression; better training; two-way communication channels between workers and managers and basic information about employment rights.
All this leads me to conclude that in my recent experiences, perhaps it was not me who was invisible but the men and women who fuel the hospitality sector and the drinks industry with their labour.
Dr Deirdre Curran’s main areas of teaching and research at NUI Galway include employment relations, employment law and the resolution of workplace conflict. She’s actively involved in research and alternative dispute resolution processes (particularly mediation), employee voice and employment law. A Founder Member and leader of the Kennedy Institute Workplace Mediation Research Group she believes that mediation practice needs to be informed by a solid foundation of empirical research. She’s currently co-leading a comparative study of public provisions for workplace mediation in Ireland and New Zealand.
If you’re interested to hear more about Deirdre’s research, or indeed participate in the study, you’re welcome to contact her at: Deirdre.firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 091 492521.