South Bank on Tuesday afternoon felt like the London Eye was a massive patio heater that had accidentally been left on full blast. In one corner of Jubilee Gardens, a small bunch of protesters with red flags fluttering in the hot breeze interrupted the usual August vista of melting ice creams and melting tourists.
They were there to mark the publication of a report by Unite the Union, which aims to highlight the fact that working in London's hotels is some sort of Dubai-style stressful, exploitative nightmare. Titled "Unethical London", the report puts staying in one of London's global hotel chains on a par with flushing your toilet with mineral water or shooting a lion just to watch it die.
The report reads like a buzzword bingo for the modern world of work's total en-shittening: casualisation, emotional labour, excessive hours.
But it's the sections marked "in their own words" that are really panic-inducing. Quotes from workers paint a picture of, on the one hand, chronic over work; and on the other, stress at being given too few hours on too little pay. Consistent throughout is a pattern of pushing people to breaking point – either out of the industry or out of their minds.
"They pulled me from 50 hours a week to six hours per week. Maybe someone can teach me how to survive on six hours a week and how to pay my bills."
"Working 14 hour days with no breaks. Diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Cannot get a full night's sleep."
"Never see my child or partner, due to being at work or too tired when I get home."
"A new agency came and said nothing would change and then they changed everything. We lost breaks, they want us to clean more for less, and we're losing money. They said if you don't like it – find another job."
The report also includes an illuminating survey of workers. Room attendants would appear to be wrecking their bodies at an alarming rate to plump out pillows. This part of the report is pretty difficult reading:
If they were office workers, there would probably be a bunch of think pieces about how making hundreds of beds every day is "the new smoking".
Chefs, meanwhile, definitely have the most fun. 27 percent drink alcohol to get through their shift and 41 percent take "other stimulants" to see them through. That sounds like a blast, and I frankly don't know what they're complaining about. I wish I could get pissed and coked up at work – just like Mad Men! Totally not depressing! Except that 51 percent report being depressed because of over work. And let's not forget the 56 percent who take painkillers to see them through their shift, or the 78 percent who have had an accident or near miss due to being over-tired.
Waiters, meanwhile, seem to be regularly at risk of being stiffed out of money. 71 percent do not know how their tips are calculated and what percentage they get. 57 percent of waiters believe they are owed unpaid wages for hours worked.
On Southbank, a fussy jobsworth security guard was demanding the protesters get off the gardens because they're private land, just to prove that we're going to a hell in a privately owned hand-cart.
So the demonstration decamped around the corner to a Premier Inn hotel, the jobsworth following them all the way, demanding they roll up their flags until they were off the gardens.
Outside the hotel, annoyed managers and security guards looked on as the trade unionists made speeches. Flustered guests nervously took protest leaflets as they went past. I contacted Whitbread, the owners of Premier Inn, to ask for their comment on the protest, but they didn't get back to me.
The protesters were pretty reticent about giving their names for fear of repercussions. I spoke to a housekeeping supervisor from Bulgaria, who told me that working more than you get paid for is pretty standard. "Sometimes people leave the hotel late, so it doesn't matter that your hours have finished; you have to stay – but they pay exactly your hours."
A front-of-house worker told me how the unsociable hours can affect your life: "When you finish a night shift, you are so tired, you sleep on the night tube almost every day."
Both told me that the industry gets away with it by employing easily exploitable migrant workers, who make up 70 percent of London hospitality workers, according to the report. "Imagine you come from abroad, you don't speak much English, there's not a union in your workplace, you don't know how to complain, raise a grievance about anything. You get demoralised, you have stress, you call sick, go to the doctor, you can get depressed. It affects the mental health of people," said the front-of-house worker.
The housekeeping supervisor from Bulgaria agreed: "It's better for the industry to employ people who don't speak proper English. Most of the people don't understand what it says on contracts... it's easier to manage them. They're scared to lose their job, so they'll do whatever they've been told."
But it's not only the most easily exploitable who have to put up with shit in London's hospitality industry. Away from the protest, I spoke to a chef who has worked in the capital for four years, having previously worked in Canada for six, mostly in fine dining kitchens. "Compared to Canada, work conditions in the food industry in London are ridiculous. I have heard the same kind of comments from Australians and Kiwis. You can make way more money working way less hours as a chef de partie over there than you can make here as a sous or a head chef. When I moved here, it felt like I moved to a third world country. This is how big the gap is."
"A huge amount of restaurants in London can only survive and be profitable by dodging on work regulations. It's literally fuelled on people's misery."
Turning this gloomy outcast on its head, things are less terrible elsewhere. The Unethical London report tells "a tale of two cities", pointing out that hotel workers in New York are unionised and have better pay and conditions as a result. That London's hospitality industry is so exploitative will be news to a lot of customers, but probably not to anyone who has worked in it. For them, perhaps the big news is that things could maybe get better.
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