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

Chapter Five: Communication and voice in the workplace

This chapter explores experiences relating to communication in the workplace. It looks in particular at the extent to which hospitality workers have access to formal and informal channels to express their views and opinions on their work, and to negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment with their employers. The chapter also looks at their views on external sources of support and advice, such as trade unions.

The themes explored in this chapter address issues relating in particular to experiences of 'effective voice' – one of the five dimensions of fair work as outlined in the Fair Work Convention's Framework.

5.1 Formal channels for communication

None of our participants reported having formal one-to-one meetings with their managers or supervisors, either on an occasional or on a regular basis. Some participants did report participating in team meetings, typically on a weekly basis, which provided opportunities for senior staff to communicate operational or logistical information. However, many of our participants had no set meetings at all, communicating with managers only if and when they were on shift together. For agency workers or people who worked alone or in small venues, they often would only communicate with managers via phone or messaging services such as WhatsApp. Moreover, in some cases, hospitality workers reported being unclear about whether they had an individual line-manager: in these cases, workers reported being responsible to whoever the individual supervisor was for their particular shifts or, in the absence of any supervisors, to the owner of the venue who dealt with their pay and contracts.

5.2. Expressing opinions and views at work

Many of our participants reported feeling that their views and opinions mattered in the workplace. For example, many workers reported that employers or managers acted upon – or least appreciated – suggestions that they had made to improve efficiency or customer service. At the same time, we also spoke to hospitality workers who felt either that there was no need for them to offer views or contributions on how things were run in the workplace, or who felt that these would not be acknowledged by senior staff.

Students and those who saw their work as secondary to other jobs or career plans were most likely to express the view that it was not their 'place' to express views on how things were run. For example, two students, Andrew and Kate, told us that they thought that they lacked the skills or experience to make such contributions and moreover, in Andrew's case, that he had little interest in doing so as he saw his job as temporary:

"It's a bit out of my skill set and it doesn't really make much of a difference to me again because if they have a way of doing it then I do it their way. And it's up to them to choose whether that's effective or not. I just follow the rules which they make…. Maybe when I'm looking at longer term plans for my bigger career, my future, I might have a bit of a different attitude but because of the nature of the job it really doesn't affect me…… I see my work as a job to put money in my bank account…Work is there for me to turn up, make my salary and go home and be able to do the things I want to outside of work. I don't see work as either a part of my life to make me happy and what not, it's there to earn."

Andrew, 21, undergraduate student and part-time waiter in a café, Edinburgh

"I have made a couple of suggestions, particularly with the way the drinks are run, just because that was what I was doing most of the time. So, if there was anything that I felt like would be a better way to do something like, say with cleaning the coffee machine, I had more experience with that, so, I tried to make sure it was done properly and it was all clean for the next person the next day. But any bigger things to do with the café, I kind of left to the people who had more experience….I think [that would come] with the number of hours you do put in, I think the more hours you do, the more experience you have and the more you can reflect on that and then give your input on things, but because I've never worked full time in this café, it's a bit more difficult I think, I don't feel as comfortable, saying, giving my opinions and things like that… it really depends what I'm suggesting, because they have run this café for a long time, so, they have a lot more experience in this area than me."

Kate, 21, undergraduate student and barista in coffee shop, Edinburgh

By contrast, other participants did express wishes for a greater say in the workplace but faced barriers when doing so. For example, Hannah, a bartender, had a more direct line of contact with her employers who, she reported, did frequently ask for suggestions from staff on how to increase their customer basis, which was currently dwindling. However, Hannah complained that when she made suggestions, they were routinely ignored – something that she found demoralising:

"The people who own [the bar] they ask for like our opinions and ideas and stuff but then when we give them like ideas and not like frivolous stuff but actual stuff that would work and things we know we could like do, they just like are like 'oh no, no, we can't do that'…… just like putting stuff on like nights and like karaoke, live music or like those kind of things, different promotions and or like doing different things with them like a food menu or stuff like that …And it is just like what is the point in even asking then, why are you asking us for our opinion on things when you're not going to do it. … Especially when they are asking for them, it's just like what is the point?"

Hannah, 23, bartender, Glasgow

In another example, Lutsi, who works as a supervisor in a large chain of coffee shops, felt that the organisation was so large that things were set at a high-up level, leaving little space for her contributions to be heard:

"The store managers don't have much leeway to do stuff…it seems like you know, how many cups we should order, yeah, that is easy, that we can decide, but yeah, bigger things…. Everything is written for somebody to decide it."

Lutsi, 41, barista in coffee shop in Aberdeen

An interesting comparison here is Jessica, a wine bar manager, who emphasised that she felt listened to in the workplace, precisely because she worked for a small business rather than a "big corporate" organisation:

"I like working in a small team. I'm glad we don't have a big corporate thing where you're just a cog in a wheel. Your opinion does matter in this place. If you don't like wine of if you want to change something, you can say that and it's not taken badly."

Jessica, 38, wine-bar manager, Glasgow

5.3 Negotiations with employers over pay and conditions

As explored in previous chapters, many of the hospitality workers that we interviewed emphasised that 'self-advocacy' was important in the hospitality industry, particularly in order to ensure good working hours, pay, and conditions. However, the extent to which workers felt able to exercise their voice in this manner varied considerably.

For example, we interviewed some hospitality workers who had successfully negotiated their pay with their employers. For example, Jessica, a 38-year-old wine bar manager in Glasgow, had asked for a pay increase when she started to take on more responsibilities as a manager, which her employer agreed to:

"Well, that's kind of how [I got promoted]… so I was just normal bar staff, until I started doing the events thing, and I started working doing the day shifts, and then when we fired our old manager, I started taking on those responsibilities without being asked, but there was no one else to do it. But I was still getting paid the same amount that I was earlier, so until we started hiring new people, and I was like hang on a second, I'm doing a manager's role without being told to, and I think I should get paid more… [that conversation] was okay, better than I expected, I didn't get quite what I wanted, but I think it would … obviously I started high and we negotiated and it was a fair arrangement in the end I think. Yeah, my boss is understanding."

Jessica, 38, wine-bar manager, Glasgow

At the same time, we interviewed many workers who reported being unhappy about their wages or their hours but having not asked their employers for a wage increase. In some cases this was because, paradoxically, they reported having a good relationship with their employer and they did not want to cause tension, particularly if the employer was under stress. This was the case with Vicki, for example, whose story was explored as a worker story in Chapter Two. Indeed, some participants reported being acutely aware of the financial struggles of their employers, particularly since COVID and with the cost of living crisis. In these circumstances, they felt that it was inappropriate to ask for a pay rise. Ellen, who had worked in the same hotel for 19 years and reported having a close relationship to the hotel owner, described this as follows:

"[My pay] is probably not what some people would class as fair. After being there for nearly twenty years, it probably should be a little bit higher than what it is. But I also know what the hotel has gone through in the last ten years and, you know, how close they came to losing everything. And I know the price of things, we weren't making money, you know what I mean, I've been there. And so, like I said, my loyalty to her [the hotel owner] is more than my pay is worth, d'you know what I mean? Like I said, she would do anything for me, I know she would, and I feel like, I understand where money worries come from in a small business like herself."

Ellen, 40, office supervisor and manager in a hotel on an island

Another good example here are these comments by Julie, 57, who works evening and weekend shifts in a take-away in Glasgow:

"No, I wouldn't ask them [for a pay rise] because I know sometimes you know they struggle as well because obviously they've got all these overheads that have to be [paid]. If they've got more orders they are cooking more so their energy requirements are more. But if it's a case of nobody comes in, because there has been some weeks that they themselves have said they've not been able to take a wage out the business because there's just not enough business coming in and they are saying like the cost of everything as well has gone up like four, five, six fold, and they are in a position where… if we put the prices up will that stop people coming in and also if we make new menus up with the increased prices that in itself is a big cost because it is apparently £300 for them to print new leaflets. And it may well get that if it keeps that way they will maybe seriously have to consider just stopping the business."

Julie, 57, full-time administrator and part-time front-of-house in take away, Glasgow

In other cases, people attributed not asking for a pay rise to a lack of personal confidence or a lack of experience in those sorts of conversations, as well as to concerns about losing their job. Conversely, those who did regularly negotiate their pay linked this to greater experience and confidence in the industry. This was Alek's point, for example, whose various negotiations with employers are described in the worker story in Chapter Two. As a reminder, Alek also linked his increased confidence to the fact his English language had improved since he first arrived from Poland.

To give another example, Jamie, a security guard, notes that experience but also confidence in one's ability to get other work are essential to avoiding low pay in the hospitality industry (for Jamie's full story, see section 2.1.1). He also states that this confidence is linked to how financially dependent you are on the work in the first place – an important point given that Jamie now also has a full-time job on the NHS, in addition to this weekend work as a security guard:

"If you've been in it long enough you just tell them what your starting rate is and this is what you've got to pay me or you're going somewhere else, and if you're experienced enough you can just walk somewhere else, it's easy enough…. Yes, it's experience in just speaking up for yourself, some people it's needs must, see if you're really needed, because I've done it myself where I've just let them pay me less than what they should've than what I would get paid or what I would ask for simply because needs must."

Jamie, 38, assistant porter in the NHS and part-time doorman/security guard, Glasgow

In other cases, however, employees reported raising issues with their employers, only to be told that there was nothing to be done. This was Birodh's experience, for example, when he asked his employer if he could not work weekends in order to spend time with family: he was told that this was not an option. Daniel, a night-time hotel receptionist, requested to work four shifts on, and two off, as he had done in his previous job, but his employer refused: Daniel told us that, "they said if you don't like your hours you know where the door is". Finally, the story of Mike (see worker story in Chapter Two) provides an example of a worker who felt that his own progression opportunities in the business had been curtailed by challenging his employer over an issue to do with his hours.

To sum up this section, therefore, our research found examples both of people feeling unable to ask for better pay or conditions, as well as examples of people receiving better pay or conditions only when they initiated this process themselves. Our findings point towards a few possible factors that may affect the extent to which employees feel able to negotiate their pay, such as their relative financial security, their experience in the industry, their migration status and confidence in the English language, and their confidence in their ability to find other work at a better rate of pay. 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 ask for pay rises than those with a difficult or conflictual relationship.

5.4 External support and advice

Some of the workers that we spoke to felt that there was a role for greater external support and advice for hospitality workers. Lutsi, for example, described the experience of an Estonian friend who had been fired when her manager broke company rules in her presence, even though she herself had not broken any rules. Lutsi, who had also migrated to Scotland from Estonia, used this story to illustrate her point that there should be more help available to people in the hospitality industry, or more should be done to make people aware of the support mechanisms that are available, particularly for migrants, so that they could learn more about their rights.

"[My friend] is also from Estonia, and I'm quite sure by law she could you know, sue them, because it wasn't fair, it wasn't what was supposed to be happening at all. But she just thought she had to find a new job…. [She] hates people to know that she's from another country, especially country in eastern Europe…she doesn't want people to know."

She additionally gave some of her co-workers' experiences of sexual harassment from a colleague as a reason why there should be some sort of 'helpline', as well as her own experience of being transferred to another venue without any notice or warning:

"It's unfair and you know, people don't want to complain, they don't know where to complain… There] should be [a] wider published way for people to complain. Helpline or something.. Maybe they don't want to do anything, but have option, even you know, it's a proper guide to find online, what's the rules? It would be nice to have a place to call."

Lutsi, 41, barista in coffee shop, Aberdeen

Lily, who came to Scotland from Hong Kong for her studies, also felt that there should be increased support and guidance from a reliable external source for hospitality workers who experienced bad treatment from their employers:

"I hear about a lot of…different people working in different hospitality or I've started to pay more attention to it, there's a lot of really bad stories that I hear about… a lot of places are still kind of more quiet or kind of cheeky about tipping or maybe not paying and kind of things like that, luckily that didn't happen in my place and I feel very grateful for that. I wish there was…more checking for that kind of thing because now that I'm getting that proper treatment I feel life is really unfair that people didn't get paid what they really deserved to get paid. So maybe minimum line, maybe upholding minimum wage and also tipping and things like that, I think they should be upheld by the government, so by checking… I wish that there would be maybe a department for doing that for certain people or they need to make new rules and new changes for pushing people to do the proper thing.. or maybe setting up like a certain department for when people are complaining for mistreatment from their employers."

Lily, 26, undergraduate student and part-time waitress in Thai restaurant, Edinburgh.

5.5 Views on trade unions

Among our 40 unique participants, 5 were current members of a union, 35 were not.

When we asked participants who were not members of trade unions if they would be interested in joining, many said they had not considered it and were not aware of options for hospitality unions. Lutsi, a 41-year-old Estonian woman working as a barista, reflected that if a union did exist, they were "not doing a good job, or [she] would have heard about them." This was despite the fact, as mentioned in the section above, she felt strongly that hospitality workers needed more external support and advice to protect them from bad treatment by employers.

Others had specific reasons for not joining a trade union. Neil, a 38 year-old man working part-time in events and full-time outside the hospitality sector, had previously been a member of a trade union when working in a bank outside of Scotland. However, he felt the trade union had been unable to save his job or those of many hundred colleagues. He told us that this left "a sour taste' and that he has not since joined any union.

By comparison, Daniel, a 55-year-old hotel receptionist, was not confident that his employer would listen to a trade union, as he stated that their main concern was to "make money". Finally, Denise, a 59-year-old waitress, expressed concerns about a scenario where the union would vote to strike to support other workers, causing tensions with her employer, with whom she currently had a good relationship:

"Sometimes [trade unions are] more trouble than they're worth, because sometimes, you might be working in a place that you're quite happy with, and nobody is taking the mickey out of you, and you think you've got good communications and stuff like that, but then, there might be another café now having problems. Well if you're doing alright, I know it sounds selfish, but you just want it like yours, keep the status quo. Just because you're union, they might say, that café's having problems, you've got to come out on strike, but if you're happy, why would you want to?"

Denise, 59, waitress coffee shop, Dunfermline

Participants from our sample who were members of unions did not mention any experiences of receiving support from hospitality trade unions. However, one participant – Tom – did express a belief that unions were important in the industry, based on his understanding of the news and the experiences of friends:

"So, I've known people that have used them that have been wrongly accused of stuff, and then they've been fired without any warning. And then they went to the union, and the unions went back to [the employer], and they've been like, okay what's your evidence, blah, blah, blah….and then they've been offered their job back on a severance package. So, they've done quite well. So, it has been quite good, and I think hospitality, the unions are certainly coming up because they're more and more in the news these days, anyway. Especially Unite, it's been like big battles, where bars have been closing down, or they've had bars close down because they've done shady things."

Tom, 35, assistant manager in a café in a tourist venue, Edinburgh