A qualitative investigation into the experiences of workers in the hospitality sector in Scotland

Executive Summary

This research examines experiences of fair work in the hospitality industry in Scotland. The research was conducted by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) on behalf of the Fair Work Convention. The project involved semi-structured interviews with 30 hospitality workers and the analysis of video diaries completed by 14 hospitality workers.

The report focuses on the perspectives and lived experiences of hospitality workers. In particular, it explores the impacts of precarious work, low pay and poor working conditions on the physical, mental and social well-being of those working in the hospitality industry. It also looks at how these experiences have been adversely affected by recent social and political events, particularly COVID-19, Brexit, industry-wide staff shortages and the cost-of-living crisis. The research presents a diversity of voices and experiences, including those of women, workers with recent histories of migration to Scotland and workers in rural and island locations in Scotland; many of whom face a unique set of challenges in the hospitality industry. The report additionally explores positive experiences of work among hospitality workers, relating particularly to their everyday relationships with customers and with co-workers. Finally, the report looks at workers' views and experiences of progression and training as well as communication and voice in the workplace.

It is worth noting that while many of the workers in our sample have had difficult experiences in the hospitality sector, we also spoke to people who reported enjoying their work and experiencing good working conditions. This suggests that experiences of fair work may vary considerably across the sector. We recognise that this study is based on a relatively small sample of hospitality workers. In the conclusion to the report, therefore, we suggest where further research could usefully explore the nature and extent of certain experiences across the sector.

The findings of our study, across ten different themes, are summarised below.

1. Findings on working hours

Precarious working hours can have detrimental impacts on the financial, personal, and social well-being of hospitality workers.

Our research illustrates the significant impact that precarious working hours can have on the well-being of hospitality workers. Specifically, our research provides numerous examples of workers who were unable to plan when or how much they would be working from week to week. These problems were most acute for those on zero-hours contracts although they could also occur for some on part-time and full-time contracts, who reported that their working hours and shift patterns could vary significantly on a weekly or even daily basis. These uncertainties created financial insecurity and hardship for some workers, as well as experiences of social and personal hardship, given that they were unable to plan or invest time in social relationships and valued past-times outside work.

Zero-hours contracts work best for people who require flexibility, who see their jobs as temporary or secondary to other work, and who can rely on alternative sources of income.

Our research provides examples of hospitality workers who reported valuing the flexibility afforded to them by working in the hospitality industry, typically because they were students, carers, or working full-time in other sectors. Many of these workers told us that they valued the fact that zero-hours contracts allowed them to vary their hours on a weekly basis, depending on their availability. However, these workers also stressed that their working patterns were acceptable to them either only on a short-term basis or as long as they could depend on other sources of income, such as through student loans, other jobs, or family members.

Workers on zero-hours contracts can often feel pressured to accept unwanted hours, particularly within the context of staff shortages.

While many hospitality workers valued the flexibility afforded to them by zero-hours contracts, some of these workers simultaneously found that they were often unable to utilise this flexibility. Our research provides examples of hospitality workers on zero-hours contracts who felt under pressure to accept more hours than they wished to work, often due to concerns that refusing work would reduce their capacity to obtain work in the future. Some workers also reported feeling obligated to accept hours in order to reduce the stress of managers or co-workers, particularly in the context of staff shortages. We provide examples of how this pressure to accept work could negatively impact on the ability of some workers to fulfil their responsibilities outside of their work, such as family responsibilities.

Working long and anti-social hours can detrimentally impact the physical and mental health of hospitality workers.

Our research provides examples of hospitality workers who reported routinely working long hours – often as much as 80 or 90 hours per week. Some workers also reported working for weeks at a time, without any time off. These research participants were typically, but not exclusively, chefs or workers at management level. Some workers reported being paid for all these hours, while others were not. Those on annualised salaries were least likely to be paid for overtime. Many of these workers reported experiencing chronic tiredness, stress and reduced productivity as a result of long hours, as well as detrimental impacts on their relationships with family and friends.

Hospitality workers can appreciate working anti-social hours, such as evenings, nights and weekends, as it allows them the flexibility to fulfil other responsibilities, for example as students, carers, or workers in other sectors. However, hospitality workers also reported similar negative effects with anti-social hours as with long hours, such as stress, tiredness, reduced productivity, an inability to spend time with family and friends, and, in some cases, experiences of depression.

2. Findings on pay

Hospitality workers may be particularly likely to feel that their pay is unfair if they are routinely asked to carry out responsibilities beyond their pay grade. Similarly, workers may view their pay as unfair if they feel that they are using skills and experience for which they are not being adequately remunerated.

Our research provides examples of hospitality workers who were routinely performing managerial or other additional responsibilities for which they were not adequately remunerated. These workers typically reported feeling that their pay was unfair. Workers who felt that they had skills or experiences that contributed to their performance, but for which they were not remunerated, also expressed sentiments that their pay was unfair.

While the majority of our research participants reported being paid accurately and in accordance with the law, this report provides examples of hospitality workers who have experienced a variety of unfair and illegal practices around pay. Such practices can result in employees feeling anxiety and distrust in relation to their current employers, even when these negative experiences had occurred in previous jobs.

A number of the hospitality workers in our sample reported having had negative experiences around pay, most of which had occurred in previous hospitality jobs. These experiences included: not being paid accurately for hours worked; the withholding of holiday or sick pay; deductions to their pay that were deemed as unfair; failures to distribute service charges; and being paid 'off the books' in cash. Other workers told us that they had not experienced these practices directly but that they believed them to be fairly common in the hospitality industry in general.

Many hospitality workers who had had negative experiences reported sentiments of distrust or anxiety in relation to their employers, even when these negative experiences had occurred with previous employers. These concerns could manifest in certain behaviours, such as always recording their hours and checking their payslips, or asking to see a record of service charges. Such concerns could also contribute to more general sentiments of dissatisfaction in the workplace and to the desire to move jobs, including leaving the hospitality sector entirely.

Workers on zero-hours contracts may show a poor understanding of their rights around holiday and sick pay.

Many of the workers in our sample on zero-hours contracts reported not receiving holiday or sick pay and being confused about their rights in relation to these. Moreover, some of those who had received holiday pay reported that this occurred only when they had requested it from their employers.

3. Findings on working conditions

Hospitality workers can experience their work as physically demanding, particularly due to the requirement to stand for long periods of time. Some hospitality workers can also find their work mentally demanding, and at times stressful, due to the need to deliver high-quality service under pressure.

Many of the hospitality workers in our sample complained of experiencing pain in their back or in their feet, particularly due to the requirement to stand for long periods of time. We also spoke to hospitality workers who had experienced injuries and developed long-term health conditions which they attributed to prolonged periods of standing. Many hospitality workers additionally reported experiencing general physical fatigue or even exhaustion after their shifts. Some of the chefs that we interviewed reported additional physical challenges, such as working in hot kitchens and suffering from injuries due to repetitive actions or heavy lifting.

Hospitality workers who reported finding their work mentally or emotionally demanding typically attributed this to the demands of customer service, particularly the need to deliver high-quality and efficient service under pressure.

Regular breaks can help hospitality workers cope with the physical and mental demands of their work. However, hospitality workers may have limited flexibility as to when they take their breaks, or may not take any at all, despite working long shifts.

While many of the hospitality workers in our sample reported that regular breaks helped them to manage the physical and mental demands of their work, many simultaneously reported either not taking breaks, or having limited flexibility as to when they took them. They typically attributed this to venues being busy or to staff shortages. Most workers who did take breaks reported having to enforce these themselves, as opposed to breaks being enforced by supervisors or managers.

4. Findings on relationships with customers

Interactions with customers can be a significant source of job satisfaction – and of meaning and purpose – for hospitality workers.

Most of the hospitality workers in our sample reported that interactions with customers were the best part of their jobs. They described these interactions as enjoyable and energising and, in some cases, as providing a sense of greater meaning and purpose to their work.

Hospitality workers may also find interactions with customers demanding and stressful, particularly when customers complain, when they are drunk, or when they are abusive.

Most of the hospitality workers in our sample reported having had experienced distress caused by their customers. They highlighted three particular types of situations that could be particularly difficult: dealing with drunk customers, dealing with customers' complaints, and dealing with customers that were physically or verbally abusive.

Women working in the hospitality industry may be particularly vulnerable to experiencing abuse and harassment from customers.

Our research highlights examples of women who have experienced sexual harassment from customers in the workplace. It also highlights examples of hospitality workers who have witnessed this behaviour from customers towards women colleagues. Further research is needed to ascertain the extent and nature of these experiences in the sector.

5. Findings on relationships with co-workers

Relationships with co-workers can be central to job fulfilment and satisfaction for hospitality workers.

Most of the hospitality workers in our study reported having close relationships with co-workers, often likening these relationships to friendships or even family relationships. These relationships were a central aspect of these workers' enjoyment and satisfaction in their work.

Hospitality workers who work in restaurants, kitchens or other high-pressure environments may feel particularly vulnerable to experiences of bullying from managers.

A number of the hospitality workers in our sample reported experiencing or witnessing bullying or difficult behaviour from managers, albeit to different degrees. Chefs and those who worked with chefs were particularly likely to report that verbal abuse was commonplace in restaurant kitchens, although some workers believed that this had improved in recent years. Some workers in other, non-kitchen contexts also expressed the view that the pressures of delivering good customer service on time contributed to bullying and abusive behaviours among senior staff across the hospitality sector. Given these provisional findings, further research is needed to ascertain the nature and extent of these experiences among hospitality workers in different environments.

Hospitality workers in our sample often changed jobs frequently. We identified a number of different factors leading to high turnover in the hospitality industry, such as relationships with supervisors, working conditions, hours and pay. One of the most common themes was that workers often used the ability to move jobs as a strategy to deal with bad treatment, such as bullying and harassment.

6. Findings on communication in the workplace

An absence of formal avenues for communication in the workplace, in combination with low expectations around progression, may contribute to a lack of effective voice among workers in the hospitality industry.

Many of the hospitality workers in our sample expressed a sense that they did not see a role for their views and opinions on how things were run in the workplace. This was particularly common among workers who saw their jobs as temporary or secondary to other jobs or commitments. It is also noteworthy that most of these workers reported having no or irregular formal avenues for communication with managers or supervisors, such as meetings or appraisals.

The ability to advocate for oneself is seen as vital by some hospitality workers for avoiding experiences of exploitation in the industry.

Self-advocacy emerged as a theme in relation to several different topics in our research. In particular, some hospitality workers emphasised that in order to ensure good working conditions, pay and hours in the industry, it was important to learn about one's rights and to defend one's rights during interactions with employers. These hospitality workers typically saw this sort of knowledge and confidence as something that they developed through experience in the industry over time, as well as something that came with greater personal financial security. It could also be affected by their migration status and confidence in the English language. The nature of their relationship with their employer may well also be a factor, although interestingly our research suggests that it cannot be assumed that employees with a close and trusting relationship with their employers are any more likely to advocate for themselves than those with a difficult or conflictual relationship. The research found examples of hospitality workers who acknowledged the stress or financial struggles of their employers, and did therefore not want to cause tension due to their good relationship.

Other workers felt that there should be more external, independent support and advice available to hospitality workers. Trade unions could be a potential support mechanism, but most of our research participants were not members of a union, often because they had not considered it or were aware of options for hospitality unions.

7. Findings on progression and training

Precarious working hours, low pay, and experiences of working long and anti-social hours can affect workers' wishes for progression within the hospitality industry.

When discussing progression opportunities, the hospitality workers in our study often cited low pay and precarious working hours as a reason for not pursuing progression opportunities within the sector or as a reason for seeing their hospitality work as temporary or secondary to jobs in other sectors.

Our research also provides examples of hospitality workers who had chosen to take jobs with less responsibility, lower pay, and less secure hours than in their previous jobs because they felt that they were less likely to be expected to work long, unpaid hours in these more insecure working arrangements.

The hospitality industry is seen by some workers as offering good and fair opportunities for progression, both in terms of income and skills.

While some of the hospitality workers in our sample expressed little desire to progress in the industry, others stated that they saw significant opportunities for progression in the industry. This was particularly the case among chefs, managers and those working with specialist produce, such as wine or coffee. Some of these workers also expressed a sense that the industry worked on 'meritocratic principles' insofar as experience, hard work, and skills were more important for progression than social background or qualifications.

Opportunities to improve skills and qualifications can positively impact on sentiments of job satisfaction and the desire to stay in the industry among hospitality workers.

While the majority of workers in our sample had received little formal training, our research also provides examples of workers who have pursued more formal qualifications and training experiences, either independently or facilitated by their employers. These were typically chefs, those working at managerial level, or those working with specialist produce, such as wine or coffee. These workers cited this training as improving their sense of satisfaction in their current workplace and as a motivating factor for staying in the industry.

By contrast, other hospitality workers in our sample cited a lack of interest in pursuing training: this was typically either because they saw their work as temporary or secondary to their work in other industries, or because it was because they felt that their existing experience in the industry was adequate to perform their current job.

8. Findings on social and political contexts

The COVID-19 pandemic placed additional pressures on some hospitality workers and has led some to question their future in the industry.

Our research suggests that the pandemic has placed additional pressures on some hospitality workers. For most of the workers in our sample, the pandemic had some or all of the following impacts: it created or worsened financial hardship; added to anxiety and uncertainty about future work prospects; created extra demands in the workplace, particularly in terms of managing customers; and contributed to staff shortages, which again created additional stressors and pressures. Some of our participants reported feeling less certain about their own future in the hospitality industry as a result of the pandemic, as they felt the pandemic had highlighted the uncertainties involved in being dependent on hospitality work for a regular income.

Hospitality workers typically see staff shortages as having contributed to a worsening in their working conditions, although some also believe that they have forced employers to raise standards.

Almost all of the participants that we interviewed had observed that their workplaces and/or the industry as a whole were experiencing significant staff shortages. Many of these participants linked staff shortages to the COVID-19 pandemic and its after-effects, although many also saw them as a product of Brexit as well as longer-term issues with recruitment and retention in the hospitality industry due to poor working conditions and low pay.

Most participants reported that staff shortages had made their working conditions worse, particularly in terms of having to work longer or unwanted hours, feeling under increased pressure in the workplace, and being unable to take adequate breaks. Some participants, however, reported anecdotal observations that standards in the industry were improving as employers seek to recruit and retain more staff.

9. Findings on migrant workers

People with recent histories of migration may feel particularly vulnerable to exploitation around pay and/or hours.

Our research provides examples of hospitality workers who have migrated within the last ten years from countries in eastern Europe and who reported feeling particularly vulnerable to exploitation within the industry because of their position as migrants. These workers attributed this sense of vulnerability both to the exploitative or prejudiced attitudes of certain employers, as well as to a sense that they cannot – or could not in the past – advocate for themselves, due to poor English language skills or a poor understanding of the legal and ethical norms in the industry.

People with histories of migration can experience racist abuse in the hospitality industry, both from co-workers and from customers.

Our research shows that migrants working in the hospitality industry may experience abuse based on their skin colour and/or their accents, both from customers and from co-workers. Such experiences can contribute to feelings of anxiety and being unsafe in the workplace, and feelings of frustration and anger at being unfairly treated. However, not all of the migrant workers that we interviewed reported these experiences. Further research is needed to establish the extent of such experiences in the hospitality industry, and why some workers may be more vulnerable to abuse than others.

10. Findings on working in rural areas

Hospitality workers in rural areas can face a unique set of challenges.

Hospitality workers in rural or island locations in Scotland reported particular challenges relating to these locations. In particular, they talked about an inability to find affordable accommodation, which meant they often had to either commute long distances or live in staff accommodation, both of which could detrimentally impact on their family and social lives outside work. This could also mean that these workers were more likely to see their jobs as temporary, as they felt they would be unable to settle in the area in the long-term. Workers in rural areas also expressed concerns that they were more vulnerable to experiencing the negative consequences of staff shortages and price rises.