Fraser Stewart: Why you should care about Caffe Nero's treatment of its staff

CommonSpace columnist Fraser Stewart says workers in the service industry are often overworked, underpaid and overlooked

LIKE many students, I've worked in the service industry throughout university in order to make ends meet.

From my own experience, mainly in coffee and ranging from frontline to supervisory to managerial positions, there are two things I have found service workers to have in common.

First, we tend to make excellent customers, having learned the values of patience and humility in our own positions. Second, many harbour a degree of resentment towards their previous employer.

I have known baristas from Starbucks who weren't allowed a glass of water on shift, and bar staff from the G1 group who had worked up to and over 70 hours in a single week with barely a bathroom break in between.

It is extremely rare to know someone who has worked for a chain or conglomerate in the service industry and left on a positive note. I have known baristas from Starbucks who weren't allowed a glass of water on shift; a Juice Garden chef who was disciplined for suggesting that sandwiches should be sliced differently; bar staff from the G1 group who had worked up to and over 70 hours in a single week with barely a bathroom break in between.

I myself, with more than a little retrospective self-loathing, have allowed my own blind loyalty and work ethic to be taken advantage of in companies that still have the nerve to pay younger staff less for doing precisely the same work as older colleagues.

I have worked 50+ hours in a single week and navigated 12-hour stints without eating. We all have. Such is the life of a service industry employee.

Jobs of this ilk come with an overwhelming despondency: that poor working conditions are to be expected - case closed, full stop, end of discussion. We know what we're signing up for and shouldn't complain after the fact. The normality of exploitation for low-earners is unquestionably one of the greatest evils of the modern labour market.

I have worked 50+ hours in a single week and navigated 12-hour stints without eating. We all have. Such is the life of a service industry employee.

Pay, in particular, is a remarkably oppressed issue within the sector, with management often taking less than kindly to any discussion thereof. So when I heard recently that Caffe Nero was extending the national minimum wage increase for those over the age of 25 to all employees, I was pleasantly taken aback.

That was until I read the small print and found that, somewhat predictably, there was a catch. As compensation for the pay rise, Nero has revoked staff lunch privileges.

Most will realise that this decision is little more than a thinly-veiled attempt to make staff pay for their own wage increase. Does anyone genuinely believe that a firm such as Nero would have considered bumping wages up were they not in the first instance legally obliged to do so? Of course not.

The rise in minimum wage thus presented such companies with a conundrum: reward their workers in line with the national initiative and take the negligible hit to their multi-million-pound turnover, or preserve profits and make up the deficit elsewhere.

Jobs of this ilk come with an overwhelming despondency: that poor working conditions are to be expected - case closed, full stop, end of discussion.

Naturally, Nero opted for the latter, as many others will and always to the detriment of frontline staff. Never mind the pressures that servers are already under, or the paltry incomes they are expected to live on. Their financial security and wellbeing is ultimately bad for business.

In the eyes of big bosses, there are a thousand capable others out there that would take our places in a heartbeat without fuss, commotion or extra cost - why would they worry about the noisy few? Indeed, we should shut up and be thankful to have a job at all.

We should be glad of our blisters and exhaustion and poverty wages because our being employed is a privilege. How utterly repugnant such attitudes are.

Yes, anyone who has a job should be grateful that they aren't being left to rot in the doldrums; especially given the callous crusade launched by our beloved Conservative government against the poor and vulnerable. But that doesn't mean that exploiting those in low-paid work, many of whom are often poor and vulnerable, too, suddenly becomes acceptable.

Conditions we've come to so unwittingly accept are in no small part buttressed by the negative stigma attached to taking up employment on the bottom rung of the ladder.

The ethos of allowing low-end work to be unbearable because the alternatives are unliveable is fundamentally and morally corrupt.

Of course, responsibility for perpetuating the culture of exploitation in the service industry extends well beyond those at the top of it, and beyond even the halls of Westminster. Conditions we've come to so unwittingly accept are in no small part buttressed by the negative stigma attached to taking up employment on the bottom rung of the ladder.

It is a stigma defined by the offensive misconception that minimum wage jobs are minimum wage jobs because they require minimal skill or effort. The reality of course is that minimum wage jobs are minimum wage jobs because it suits profiteers to pay staff as little as is legally possible, keeping the poverty market competitive and the workers they hire lobotomized by convincing them of their own second-rate status.

So long as these ignorant misconceptions and corrupt practises exist without meaningful challenge, minimum wage employees will continue to be overworked and underpaid.

So long as these ignorant misconceptions and corrupt practises exist without meaningful challenge, minimum wage employees will continue to be overworked and underpaid.

It is not just exploitation in terms of working conditions that we need to address, then, but the psychological assault on those who take these positions and the utter self-deprecation they are forced to endure when they do.

That means challenging the forces of denigration not just in the workplace, but in the collective conscience of wider society.

The CommonSpace opinion section is an open platform for anyone who wants to voice their views and does not represent the editorial position of CommonSpace itself. If you'd like to have a piece published, email CommonSpace editor Angela Haggerty at angela@common.scot

Picture courtesy of Fraser Stewart