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

Chapter Seven: Wider contexts

This chapter looks at how the experiences of hospitality workers have been shaped by wider social and political contexts, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, ongoing staff shortages, and the cost-of-living crisis.

7.1. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic

Approximately half of our research participants were furloughed at some point during the COVID pandemic while around a third carried on working in hospitality throughout the lockdowns in some capacity. A further third of our participants reported having had neither work nor pay from their hospitality jobs for relatively long periods during lockdowns. We also interviewed one person who was made redundant after a period of furlough due to the losses incurred by their employer during the pandemic. While research participants on zero-hours contracts were less likely to have received furlough than those on permanent contracts, it is worth noting that we did speak to several people on zero-hours contracts who had received furlough pay.

The following sections show how the COVID-19 pandemic has placed additional pressures on hospitality workers: in particular, for some workers, the pandemic 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 participants also reported feeling less certain about their own future in the hospitality industry as a result of the pandemic.

7.1.1 Experiences of furlough

Several of our research participants reported that furlough was a positive experience, as they had enjoyed their time not working and they had felt well-supported by their employers. For others, however, furlough had been a stressful period. For some, this was because they missed social interactions at work, as Daniel, a hotel receptionist, described to us:

"It has been quite hard to be honest because I love being with people and when you're not with people it is very, when you are inside four walls it is quite hard. It is mentally hard."

Daniel, 55, hotel receptionist, Glasgow

For others, furlough created financial stress, especially if their furlough pay was low compared to their normal salary, as described here by Jessica, a wine-bar manager in Glasgow:

"So I was furloughed when the bar was closed… but that was annoying because I think it was based on my December 2019 payslip, which wasn't very high, because I'd been away for a lot, so my furlough was minimal, it was really, really hard, and I had to go onto universal credit, just to top up, just to pay for rent and living costs. But there was nothing they could do about it because that was how it worked apparently, so it was, yeah, tricky."

Jessica, 38, wine-bar manager, Glasgow

The uncertainty about when they would be able to return to work – if at all – also created anxiety for some research participants, as described here by Lutsi:

"I [was] anxious…you know, what is going to happen, long term? When it was bad, I wasn't working, the shopping centre was closed. Going back, yes, it's like, do I even have a job to go back to? All that, it's very stressful. I was afraid."

Lutsi, 41, barista in large coffee shop chain, Aberdeen.

Another participant, Maria, explained to us how her anxiety about being furloughed was intensified by the fact that she had only recently arrived in Scotland from Romania and had already had to abandon her original plans to work in social care work due to the pandemic. She described being "deflated" at the prospect of also losing this job and concerned about whether her plans to apply for a teaching degree at university would still be possible:

"I think [I was furloughed for] about six weeks. I remember it was less than two months, because it started off that Omicron was a big thing and then it kind of died down…although I have to say that when we first got shut, I think they said they're not going to open for about six months. So, in a way, you kind of lost a bit of hope, but then they opened prior to that… Obviously, that was a bit stressful, I'm not going to lie, because I was getting used to it and it was something that I had started and I had training on as well. So, I felt a bit deflated, I'm not going to lie, I'd invested in that and then, I said okay, and what's next now…This kind of uncertainty as well, I don't know what to do in my studying as well."

Maria, 38, barista in coffee shop, St Andrews

7.1.2 Impacts on work availability

For many of our research participants who did not receive furlough pay, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in significant changes in the availability of hospitality work. Some participants continued to work albeit with reduced hours. For example, Kate, an undergraduate student in Edinburgh, carried on working as a barista during the first lockdown but received less shifts than usual, given that the café was no longer running a table service. This contributed to Kate's eventual decision to move home to London to live with family:

"It did affect the hours I received…So, it was very much a takeaway-based situation, and because of that, we didn't need so many staff. So I think on a day-to-day basis, it was two people in front, so, one on coffees, one serving customers, and then one person in the kitchen preparing food and that was about it.. it was just fewer staff were needed and that's why we got fewer shifts…. It wasn't great at the time, just because I think I would have preferred having more shifts… so as COVID continued, I moved back to London, because that's where my family were based."

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

Other participants reported receiving no work at all, forcing some to spend their savings, as Caroline described to us:

"Just no work, no…[It was] difficult, financially. But you know, we just had to use our savings."

Caroline, 64, bartender in a golf club in Perthshire

It is noteworthy that even for those participants who held full-time jobs in other industries, the loss of a secondary income in hospitality could still generate considerable concerns about finances, as comments by the following two participants suggest:

"[There was] no work during COVID… nothing, literally nothing. ...Yeah. It just dried up. It was difficult."

Neil, 38, full-time administrator and part-time waiter for an events catering agency, Glasgow.

"I didn't like it because I wasn't getting out, you know because I wasn't at work during the day, I wasn't out at night, some weekends, so 1) you don't have any money coming in so you're just trying to make sure that you're doing the minimal in the house sort of thing, like you're not burning any energy. Because obviously if you are stuck at home all you are doing is sitting watching television. There's nothing else you can do but if you don't have money coming in then you know you just have to be careful that you're not kind of increasing your expenses sort of thing by having the heating on, having the lighting on, having the TV on sort of thing you know."

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

We also spoke to hospitality workers who had had to change the nature of their work as a result of the pandemic, either by taking a less desirable job or by temporarily leaving the hospitality industry altogether. For example, Birodh arrived in Scotland in early 2020 from Portugal, where he had been working for almost a decade as a chef since leaving his country of birth, Nepal. He had originally planned to obtain a job as a chef in an Indian restaurant on arrival in Scotland. However, he told us that this was impossible due to restaurant closures, so instead he found a job cooking in a take-away restaurant. He was unhappy with this situation, given his experiences of poor working conditions and racism in the take-away, and he quickly found a job in a restaurant once they re-opened following lockdown.

By comparison, Lizzie, who had previously been working as a supervisor in a holiday resort, told us that she could not find any work in hospitality, despite having worked in the industry for many years and in many different types of jobs. As a result, she took a job as a cleaner while her partner, a chef, took a job in a butcher's shop:

"COVID just knocked a lot of this industry down, didn't it? It was sad to see. [My partner] went into butchery, which helped his career, but I ended up cleaning a squaddies gym, so, it wasn't very nice… Yes, I was like, I just missed being behind a bar… [ I did that] until the beginning of the end of last year, September time, is when I came back into this industry."

Lizzie, 23, waitress in an island resort

7.1.3 Impacts on workplace experiences

COVID restrictions and regulations also impacted hospitality workers' experiences in the workplace, often making working conditions more demanding. In restaurants, for example, some workers reported that they found it stressful trying to enforce hygiene and social distancing regulations among customers. Lily, an undergraduate student and waitress in a Thai restaurant, described how difficult this could be, especially when customers then complained or left bad reviews online as a result:

"We asked the customer to do this and that for Covid, we'd ask them to wear face masks, we asked them to put hand sanitizer on. We need to space them out, they can't sit together if there's only six of them from three households at the same time, some of them don't understand it and then some of them we'd actually take them to the Scottish government website…because some of the customers were really impatient and then we just didn't have enough staff to get by….they just ended up [having] a bad experience in the restaurant which frustrates us a little bit…. It was more work maybe for us to do…[and it] can be a bit [stressful]…I think everyone wishes that there was a bit less of that… some of them will just maybe walk off if it doesn't go the way they want and then some of them will argue with you 'why this has happened' and things like that or 'this shouldn't be like that'. I think sometimes that's been a bit stressful, it happened as well…they've kind of left really bad reviews online and that kind of stresses my boss…"

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

Jessica, a wine-bar manager, also described similar frustrations with having to enforce regulations among customers:

"I was happy to go along with it, do what I was told, it was more the customers being difficult, coming in and refusing to wear a mask, and like it was a bit silly, people you know, you could wear a mask walking to your table, but then you could take it off, and then you had to put it back on to go to the toilet. I think once you're in the room, and you're sat down, it's fine, but it was just yes, especially sort of tourists, like English tourists coming up to visit, just refusing to put on a mask, or getting angry that you were asking them to. So it's more, I think the staff, we were all happy to do it, but yeah, it was the customers that were a pain."

Jessica, 38, wine-bar manager in Glasgow

To give another example, Tony, an experienced restaurant manager, described to us his frustrations at not being able to deliver a high-level of customer service due to COVID regulations and due to staff shortages. Interestingly, he said this experience contributed to his decision to take a step back from the hospitality industry – a decision that he had taken after suffering a knee injury and an associated loss of confidence in the workplace:

"It was a new restaurant that opened up this time last year. I think initially, because of the working conditions, the lack of staff, customers were giving you the benefit of the doubt to a certain extent, but that was annoying me, because if you're going to do something, I say: 'Do it nice, or do it twice.' People are coming into the restaurant, they're paying £70/£80 a head. Why are they getting service that they just put up with? I think that's why I thought: 'I can't, I can't do this. I need to get out of this for a while."

Tony, 54, restaurant manager, Glasgow

It is worth noting here that the majority of hospitality workers that we interviewed reported feeling comfortable and safe at work, despite the risks posed by catching the virus. Many of them noted that measures such as mask-wearing, putting up screens, and social distancing, contributed to this sense of security at work. However, as the following quotes suggest, some participants reported that such measures simultaneously resulted in a greater workload, greater physical discomfort at work, and a reduction in their overall job satisfaction, particularly given that such measures reduced the quality of interactions with customers:

"We did just like the department service, like we cleaned the whole room all the time, which was good, because I keep on going, this is how it has been working during COVID-19. Of course, I have the special things for Health and Safety to do, separate like more than usual, you have to clean all the time, yourself, your hands and put the mask on and we have, I don't know how to call it? It's like white suits on you, just to protect yourself, and it was a little bit worse than usual."

Andrei, 30, housekeeping supervisor in a hotel, Stirling.

"Then when we did go back you had to go back wearing masks and obviously following the strict rules of social distancing and hand gels. It was a different environment. I mean we have only stopped wearing masks in the last 2 or 3 weeks now… It wasn't too bad. Our kitchen is not the biggest, so it did mean that the social distancing side of things maybe wasn't adhered to properly as it should have been. Because we just couldn't meet that requirement, but we did continue to wear masks in the kitchen. And that was fine, but obviously a kitchen is a hot environment anyway and that was a lot more hot and claustrophobic type of thing."

Megan, 32, kitchen runner, small town in Highlands

"I was working but…I was just prepping the food and just dishing it out to give to people, it was more like a Deliveroo sort of thing. [I found it] a bit boring, I didn't have the interaction… it was more like, robotic, just going, da, da, da, and I could understand why the people that do the takeaways, they don't like it. They don't get the interaction with people do they?"

Denise, 59, café waitress, Dunfermline

Finally, many of our participants described how staff shortages resulting from COVID created a range of additional pressures in the workplace. This issue is explored in more depth in section 7.2.

7.1.4 Impacts on pay and tips

A common observation among some participants was that the pandemic had resulted in permanent reductions in how much customers tip. It was typically felt that this was a product both of the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, and broader behavioural change that occurred during the pandemic as a result of a reduction in table service and in the use of cash.

Most participants did not report that the COVID-19 pandemic had affected their pay in any significant manner. However, a few participants did express anecdotal views that the pandemic, coupled with staff shortages, was leading to an increase in standards in the industry given that employers were being forced to improve pay and conditions to attract workers. For example, Alek, a chef whose story is told in more detail in Chapter Two, told us that employers were being forced to raise pay in order to attract staff:

"Because a lot of people quit from hospitality, now they have a problem to find people so they realised they need to start to pay more if they want the professionals because they find that people just, not the people from the street, without background, without the experience you know and they need people with experience you know and the people with the experience changed their jobs, they start to work for retail….Even management team they start to work for retail, they start to be management in retail and they realise much less stressful and on the same money."

Alek, 35, chef, Glasgow

Similarly, Jamie, who had worked in security in the hospitality industry for around 20 years, noted that he was observing an increase in wages due to COVID-related staff shortages:

"I was always on a minimum of ten pound an hour… some places just went up because back in the day most of the door guys were on maybe twelve to fourteen quid an hour, I haven't seen that rate for any door guy for about ten years….coming out of Covid some places it's like you'll start at twelve quid an hour and I haven't seen that for a long, long time.... I think it was because of Covid, they needed people because people were struggling to come back to work and they needed them to get back but they should've been paying door guys."

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

Tony, who has worked as a restaurant manager for several decades, also noted that during his recent job applications, he has been offered better pay and conditions than in the past – something that he also attributed to the impacts of the pandemic on the industry:

"I was speaking to the food and beverage manager, he was saying: 'It's a 40-hour contract. You get paid for your overtime, and the service charge actually stays in the department.' Without even thinking, I just said: 'Well, thank God, you have grown up.' He was like: 'We've had to.' And I think, with ... because of Brexit, COVID, the lack of staff, I would say the hospitality industry has grown up quite a lot… You actually now see adverts for staff: they're mentioning things like meals, uniforms, taxis, equal share of the tips – which I've always thought, you should get that anyway. Why are employers now dangling that wee carrot? And now, a lot of them are actually saying on the applications: 'Are you okay working the weekend?' What?"

Tony, 54, restaurant manager, Glasgow

To reiterate, however, the majority of our interview participants had not observed any tangible improvements to their working conditions or pay as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. – if anything, they had experienced the opposite, particularly in terms of working conditions. Indeed, as the next section suggests, for some participants, the pandemic had led them to feel increasingly uncertain about working in the hospitality industry.

7.1.5 Impacts on longer-term job plans

Several of the participants that we interviewed reported that the COVID-19 pandemic had affected their longer-term plans around work and, specifically, had forced them to re-consider whether they wished to remain working in the sector.

For example, Neil worked full-time as an administrator in addition to working evening and weekend shifts in events catering – work that he obtained through an app-based agency. He told us that he relied on both incomes to support his family and that they had found the complete absence of work during the pandemic extremely difficult. He also told us that he greatly enjoyed his hospitality work. However, he cited the pandemic as a reason why he would never rely on income from the hospitality industry:

"The pandemic taught me that although I thought it was the safest industry in the world, but it's not…. just the fact that even if you thought it was a safe role and then obviously it's not all of a sudden…. Yeah. Yeah, you know just the fact it just disappeared like in a flash. Nobody would have ever seen that coming. If you would have to said to me in 2019 this will happen, I would have said you are insane."

Neil, 38, full-time administrator and part-time waiter in events, Glasgow

Julie was in a somewhat similar position to Neil: she worked full-time in the week, using shifts at the weekend in a take-away as a supplementary source of income. She felt that this was an unreliable source of income which she would not wish to rely on, both because of COVID and its impacts, and because of broader insecurities in the industry due to changes in how people spend:

"So that's the thing, I wouldn't be confident that potentially the work would be there, and I know just now … COVID has a big impact because a lot of them they've just not had the money to kind of keep going. And then for them to try and resurrect again it needs money but again it's a vicious circle that people have now got used to staying at home more, also they don't have the same amount of money… and the prices you're getting charged because a lot of these businesses are trying to recoup money that they've not made. But what they are doing is they've now become quite expensive, people are watching their money and saying well look it's too expensive to go out now so we'll just stop at home and get people round…. [Also] because you actually see it when you are working. The rise in like Deliveroo, Uber Eats, you see the cyclist going past with their bags on whatever so there's the rise of that… I think a lot, I've seen it myself like the supermarkets you can get two takeaway meals for £7 and a small business can't compete with that…You know that I am thinking well you know if it's quiet are they then just going to say right we don't need you to tonight or it's not been busy this week so don't bother. I think it is too volatile [to rely on for a job]."

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

Maria, a barista in a coffee shop in St Andrews, also expressed concern about relying on work in the hospitality industry, following the pandemic:

"I just wonder if they are going to come up with something that will shut everything down….The hospitality sector in particular, because they have this kind of like face to face contact with clients, so, I think they are the first, you don't know how many things shut [here], it looks like a ghost town, literally. Even coffee shops actually, a lot of things just shut down, businesses as well, I'm worried about that…people are not travelling, and they are not spending money on coffees and stuff like that, they might end up getting shut. There would be no jobs for people like me."

Maria, 38, barista in coffee shop, St Andrews

Finally, in a somewhat different example, one research participant, Mike, told us that the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted his decision to step back from management positions in the hospitality industry. While he linked this to longer term issues around over-work and pressure at work, he explained to us that the pandemic had acted as a trigger as the prolonged period of not working forced him to re-evaluate his life and what was meaningful for him:

"COVID partly triggered it, but it also makes you think about things as well in terms of family and things like that, and we started doing different things in the lockdown and valuing our time, with ourselves and getting out in the fresh air, and going for walks and all these sorts of things and I think that's had a huge mindset shift, for a lot of people. I was speaking to quite a lot of people, that have said, "I've got a totally different outlook now, since COVID." Had COVID not happened…I [probably] would have taken on that [promotion I was offered] with that company and who knows what would have happened? So, we are where we are."

Mike, 44, bartender and former hotel manager, Dundee

These sentiments were echoed by Tom, a manager in a café, who told us that the long period of not working during the pandemic allowed him time to reflect and to pursue different interests:

"[COVID] has definitely affected my plans.. I will try to get out of hospitality… [I've been] trying to [learn more IT skills], so been doing like online courses for that. So, it's not like I'll be doing this forever… I think because I had that opportunity and that long window of doing nothing [when furloughed], thinking I want to know how to do stuff properly. Like retrain."

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

7.2 Staff shortages

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. The following sections look, firstly, at how participants made sense of these shortages and, secondly, how it impacted their experiences in the workplace.

7.2.1. Understandings of staff shortages

Many of our participants linked staff shortages to the COVID-19 pandemic and its after effects. For example, Jessica, who runs a wine bar in Glasgow, reported that staff shortages had resulted from people not returning to work in hospitality after the pandemic:

"We found it really hard to employ people especially post like Covid when you lost a few people."

"And then employees, then we got a whole new team, and then 50% didn't work out and left, so I don't know, it's tricky at the moment, but I've seen so many vacancy signs in bars around the area, so you can see that everybody's got the same problem."

Jessica, 38, wine-bar manager, Glasgow

Other participants working in management positions, however, emphasised that there were also longer-term structural issues contributing to staff shortages. John, who runs a restaurant in a small town in the Highlands, emphasised that anti-social hours and low pay have always made it very hard to recruit staff:

"So, it's difficult to get staff to stay. They come in, unless they're used to the environment it's quite challenging for them and they don't want to stay… There's no financial motivator because you can't pay more than minimum wage basically. There is no special hours that you get because you're working anti-social hours, you're working evenings, you're working weekends… So, the attractions are not really there. You don't have the things to attract people in."

John, 53, head chef and restaurant manager, small town in Highlands

Mike, who had worked in the hospitality industry for several decades, also linked staff recruitment and retention problems to low pay and anti-social hours but he further noted that, in general, hospitality is not seen as a respectable profession in this country in the same way that it is in other countries:

"They've never been able to fix that, in a lot of places, because it's not, see the, I believe the problems they're experiencing now, they will blame COVID and they'll blame Brexit, but the fundamental issues have been underlying in the industry for decades, and then these two things are then just the catalyst that has manifested itself in a dreadful situation…But it's always been difficult to get the right staff, because in this country, hospitality hasn't really been seen as a viable career. There is nowhere along the line, through schooling that anybody, at any point, suggests or pushes hospitality, as a career. If you go to the continent, and you go to Malta, or Italy, Spain, if you're the head waiter of a good local restaurant, you're a significant person, within that community. That doesn't happen here."

Mike also told us that COVID-19 had given workers an experience of other jobs which had better pay and better conditions, resulting in a reluctance to return to the industry:

"So, as I say a lot of hospitality [workers] to survive during COVID, they had to find other methods of making money. They went into retail, the supermarkets were obviously busy, they went into packing, delivery, food delivery, etc….But other people have found the methods of making money and they found out that they get more money, for less hours, less stress, not as much antisocial hours, why would you come back to hospitality?"

Mike, 44, bartender and former restaurant manager, Dundee

This sentiment was echoed by two other hospitality workers, Neil and Tony who believed that staff shortages were caused by people 'waking up' to the poor pay and conditions that were part and parcel of the hospitality industry:

"Again, with the Covid situation, so many people left the trade and ended up in jobs where they'd be working in a factory, or whatever the case may be. They're doing more an 8 to 5 type job, Monday to Friday, and they don't want to come back and do the weekend work, evening work, that kind of thing. And I think that's one of the reasons they're finding it so hard to get people; they don't want to work the unsociable hours."

Neil, 38, full-time administrator and part-time waiter for events catering agency, Glasgow

"During the pandemic so many people left the industry because they realised there is life other than kitchen or waitressing or whatever and now we are struggling and there is not enough colleagues so the colleagues who are there they need to cover other people who left the industry."

Tony, 54, restaurant manager, Glasgow

It is noteworthy that several hospitality workers with histories of migration from eastern and southern Europe felt that Brexit had also contributed to staff shortages. While they themselves did not report a desire to leave Scotland, they spoke of family and friends who either chose to return home or who found the legal process needed for migration to be too prohibitive:

"In all honesty I don't think it has anything to do with COVID, I think it's more Brexit, for instance, I don't think it is COVID and not where I am, because it's quite a small coffee shop, I would imagine in other coffee shops, they would struggle to get people, just because they're not very keen to come here anymore."

Maria, 38, barista in coffee shop in St Andrews, moved from Romania in 2019

"What happened [after Brexit], loads of people, friends of mine were leaving, because like maybe they're going to throw us out, we just going to leave now."

Lutsi, 41, barista, Aberdeen, migrated from Estonia over 10 years ago.

"The thing what Brexit affected is the things like many people left the country, and we have been struggling to find people, and we still have this problem, to find people….Now it's very, if before Brexit it was easier to take people from outside of the country, now it's very a difficult process. If they don't have Pre Settled or Settled Status. These things, it makes it a more difficult process."

Andrei, 30, housekeeping supervisor, Stirling, migrated from Romania around 7 years ago

Some of the managers that we spoke to also identified Brexit as a reason for staff shortages, For example, Ellen, an office supervisor and manager in a hotel on an island told us:

"We always used to have a lot of Polish girls coming to help, and they would do breakfast and housekeeping and the bar, things like that. And generally, they were just there from May till October, sort of time, so they always got lots of hours…And we used to have accommodation for them as well, that they could stay in and just pay a small fee for staying. So it worked in well. But we don't even, we've got nobody coming over now, nobody even applying."

"And we used to get students from a French hospitality school, we used to get a student every year who came over as part of their coursework, and they had to write up. And that was always great as well, you know, hearing people's stories and they got to learn the language, and it was always fun. But nothing like that anymore, and I think it's a shame."

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

Tom, a manager in a café, also noted that Brexit had contributed to staff shortages in his café:

"So, it's harder to get better staff…especially kitchen porters…normally would be from Eastern Europe, or somewhere else, and they were really good workers. But now, we don't really have that option anymore. There's not many people willing to do that job anymore, either, so it's difficult to find and keep someone because we've been through, on average, one a week, two a week. Like, when we first opened, it was one, was a new KP every week."

Tom also said, however, that he had noticed a worsening in customer behaviour during and after the pandemic – an issue raised by other participants. He felt that this was also contributing to staff shortages:

"For the front of house, it's been really difficult to hire decent staff, and because everyone's ... I think everyone's fed up of working, because the general public now are idiots, and it can be quite difficult and quite taxing working with them. Because people have just become more idiots… people like to complain a lot more I think now. … It could be clientele, it could be anyone, they're just ... general public are morons sometimes when they go out."

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

To summarise this section, therefore, our research participants generally saw staff shortages as more than a temporary side-effect of the COVID-19 pandemic: rather, they saw them as a product of longer-term structural issues affecting the hospitality industry and, specifically, of its reliance on low-wage and flexible labour and on migrant labour.

7.2.2. The impact of staff shortages on workers

Hospitality workers generally saw staff shortages as contributing in a significant way to a deterioration in their working conditions. Indeed, as explored in more depth in Chapter Two, staff shortages were typically described as underlying many of the issues that hospitality workers faced around working conditions, such as having to work alone, a lack of breaks, and feeling pressured to accept hours that they did not wish to work.

To give a few further examples here, Jessica, a wine-bar manager, described the added pressure to workers created by COVID-related absences:

"Yeah, well we all, the team obviously all got it at some point, so working was quite tricky around that, especially when more than one of us had it, it was we were all pulling extra shifts, extra hours, being called up last minute, but then obviously I had it as well, and everyone else had to step in for me, so it just … it was tricky for about three months. And you always at work, you always wore masks the whole time, even when we opened, which I felt much safer doing, I was happy that we could keep the masks on."

Jessica, 38, wine-bar manager, Glasgow

In another example, Andrew, a waiter in a coffee shop, told us how he felt "apprehensive" about his job in coming months, due to the ongoing issues with staff shortages, which he expected would increase pressure on himself and his colleagues:

"I have noticed, it's like with the employment, the job sector right now is really, really struggling with how much availability there is to work and how desperate a lot of jobs and companies are to take on staff. We're using three or four people right now, which seems right down and we've had an ad open for a good while and haven't had a single application. … I suspect being understaffed will mean that either more people are going to have to take on more hours or there'll just be days where we only have a limited number of staff, but we can't take on more hours and we also have to work according to our situation. And, you maybe even run a reduced menu or just accept that we're going to have long wait times and it's going to be a bit more hectic than normal, but it's. Yeah, it's just like, we just have to deal with it. [I feel] A little bit apprehensive. It's not going to be probably a great deal of fun."

Andrew, 21, undergraduate student and waiter in a coffee shop, Edinburgh

7.3 Supply issues and rising prices

Our participants identified a range of other issues that were currently affecting the hospitality industry, particularly issues with supply and issues relating to the cost of living and rising prices. Some participants, such as Vicki, felt that this was exerting additional pressure on businesses, driving standards down:

"I think people sort of got really excited when everything first opened and then closed again. So, it was really busy and then the restrictions kind of, I don't know, and then I feel like people maybe didn't have the money to spend as much after it as well. So, it's just been a really weird time. I don't know, it's been so up and down I feel. But within the business, I feel, I don't know if this is so much about COVID actually, rather than, it's probably more to do with all the prices have gone up so much recently….But I know the price of stock and everything has gone up. But I think a lot of businesses did lose a lot of money during COVID as well. So, I feel like they're all a bit stressed about money and trying to cut corners and things like that."

Vicki, 28, bartender in small town in Perthshire

Several participants noted that customers were spending less and that their venues were less busy as a result of rises in prices:

"Yes, but you notice as the squeeze has come, they're ordering less or smaller things. Not really, no, I mean, I've just noticed since COVID people haven't got so much money, but maybe that's the economics."

Denise, 59, waitress in coffee shop, Dunfermline

"Yeah, yeah I think definitely you know, Friday and Saturday nights used to be heaving and it would be busy from like 6 o'clock until 11, you would be full, and have a waiting list, but now you kind of have that after work, pre-dinner drinks, and then some people, they'll be a handful of people who will have dinner and then it will just kind of drop off after 9 o'clock, and that seems to be sadly, happening more and more. And I think people are just going home, they're going home after dinner, you'll get the occasional person coming in now for a post-dinner drink, otherwise I think they're going home and buying wine from the supermarkets, and just drinking there, it's a shame. You know, especially a decent wine anyway, so I think yeah, prices, that's a big thing, and especially with then, obviously living prices going, cost of living going up, it's difficult. I think people's drinking habits have definitely changed."

Jessica, 38, wine-bar manager, Glasgow

Hospitality workers in management positions also told us that problems in supply chains, in combination with rises in prices, were creating significant difficulties for them in the workplace, both in terms of providing good customer service and in terms of keeping the business afloat. For example, John told us:

"Another thing that makes it very difficult at the moment is the cost of produce is increasing massively. I buy fresh produce, as I said. My local fishmonger, the price I was paying for a side of salmon at the beginning of the year. I can tell you what the price was, ten pounds per kilogram. It's now eighteen-fifty per kilogram. So, it's nearly double the price of what it was at the beginning of the year for me. I can't pass that onto the customer. I can't double the price of my salmon dish. The customer wouldn't pay it, but I've got, still got to think well what do I do here? Do I still offer salmon? Do I still offer fresh local produce or do I try and put something else on? So, it puts you in a difficult position that the profitability, your GP is diminishing, but you're trying to secure, you're trying to hold onto the customers. If I put it up they'll go somewhere else."

John, 53, head chef and restaurant manager, small town in the Highlands