Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front- and back-of-house about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favourite establishments. For this installment, we hear from a Polish waitress about her experiences working in a large Manchester restaurant.
I moved over to England from Poland because I got a scholarship to study here. Although I planned to stay after completing my PhD, what with Brexit, I'm not sure I'll be able to. After the experiences I've had over the last three years working in restaurants, I'm also not sure I'd want to, either.
My bursary only covers my university fees, so even before I moved, I knew I would have to get a job. Waitressing seemed like the most logical option as I'd done it back in my native Poland. After sending my CV out to a load of places, I finally got an interview in a big Asian fusion restaurant on the outskirts of Manchester city centre. I was excited at the possibility of working in a place that looked so grand and multicultural. At the interview, I was asked what kind of Champagnes I knew. I admitted I knew none but got the job anyway.
What became obvious quite quickly was that while the restaurant facade was chic, on closer inspection, the place wasn't half as posh as it made out. The couches and custom-built pods for guests were dirty from spilled drinks and the carpet had holes in it.
I soon realised this disparity between the outside and inside of the restaurant was a metaphor for the relations between front- and back-of-house staff, too.
There were strict hierarchies in place, with the British owners and bartenders at the top, Thai chefs and waitresses in the middle, and Eastern European waitresses at the bottom of the ladder. Even though we were all earning the same for our respective jobs, the owners tried to implement a profit-driven environment where we became hostile towards each other, competing for shifts and privileges while working on zero-hour contracts.
Staff meals were taken at the back of the kitchen, consisting of leftovers from the guest buffet. The chefs and waitresses got first dibs, while the Eastern European bar staff and hostesses always ate last. The food was so cold by the time we got our turn, I began to bring sandwiches from home. This was just the beginning of an increasingly tension-filled workplace.
When the sole Taiwanese bar supervisor left, there were just a few of us to man the bar. The British barmen would shout at me and the other Eastern European waitress for bringing too many cocktail orders at once. I remember going to the bathroom for a breather, and a customer said to me, "I feel sorry for you girls."
Gendered hierarchies were in place, too. The Eastern European girls never got a chance to do anything other than take drinks orders, which we were told to do wearing nice dresses and high heels. I was even reprimanded for looking too bookish and told to replace my glasses with contact lenses.
I understand that the owners felt it appropriate for Asians to be serving Asian food, but this total separation created an environment where it became impossible for people to overcome their cultural differences and become a team. Perhaps due to the contrast in clothing, the Eastern European girls were subject to inappropriate sexual advances from the driver who took staff home, too.
There were strict hierarchies in place, with the British owners at the top, Thai chefs in the middle, and Eastern European waitresses at the bottom of the ladder.
Things got even worse when the restaurant began to lose money. I'd come in on a Friday with 24 hours ahead of me over the weekend, only to be told because of a lack of bookings, I wasn't needed any more. I was assured my wages would pick up over Christmas, but relations between everyone were so bad at this point, I decided to take my revenge by buying a plane ticket to go home instead.
Rather than quit and be told I'd have to do a month's notice, I just didn't go in on a night when I knew they really needed me. I realise it was immature and also left me with no references for when I returned to England, but I felt it was the only way I could protest my bad working conditions.
When I came back, I got another job in a similar restaurant. After taking time to reflect, I wanted to give British society another chance. Unfortunately, similar situations became the norm. I'd endure listening to catty anecdotes—like the time a colleague's wife was bitter "Poles" could afford the expensive candles she sold at Selfridges.
When Brexit happened, my co-workers said that instances of racism and xenophobia were propaganda, but from what I've experienced myself, I feel there's a strong undercurrent of anti-immigrant sentiment prevalent this country.
And the way many restaurants are run is only making things worse.
As told to Kamila Rymajdo.