Since graduating in 2010 I have somehow managed to sustain an (almost entirely) independent lifestyle through bar and restaurant work – a concept which seems even more unbelievable with reports today that 90% of bar and restaurant staff earn less than is required to maintain a basic standard of living.
The news isn’t entirely shocking. I’ve worked up to three jobs at a time and still struggled to meet rent, bills and not starving myself for the month. Thankfully I’ve always had the reassurance of financial support from my parents when I really need it, fifty quid to keep me alive until the end of the month, an ASDA shop to ensure I’m not just eating cereal and Pot Noodles.
Of course not everyone is quite so lucky. For most what they take home from their overworked, underpaid restaurant job is all they have to rely on in life, or to support their family. It’s easy to imagine why people feel their only option is to avoid paying tax by taking cash in hand or doing the double, drawing the dole and taking whatever benefits they might be entitled to. It’s not so difficult to cheat the system when it’s a case of eating a solid meal or not.
I’ve seen people do it. I’ve watched friends live in a cold, dark shell of a council flat listening to the electricity metre beeping every half an hour, walking the streets rather than going back to the misery their wages can afford them. But then I’ve also watched those same friends hand over their last few pounds for a box of cigarettes and put a week’s wages in the poker machine on payday. Desperate times, stupid measures.
But how people spend their money isn’t really the issue here, I for one will always live beyond my means, to my own detriment, and that of my mother’s credit card no doubt. We can’t tell people how to spend their money (we could educate them about how they could budget or start saving, but that’s another rant for another day). The concerning bit of this report is the stark difference in what is deemed the minimum wage that people need and the minimum wage they actually receive. Employers are only legally required to pay their staff one pound less an hour than they actually need to live comfortably, eat properly and help maintain a healthy lifestyle. The message from these employers is simple – we don’t need you to live comfortably, eat well or stay healthy, we just need you to turn up, fill the tills and keep your head down.
And this is what the report doesn’t tell us. Up to 90% of bar and restaurant staff are underpaid, but exactly to what extent they are overworked or underappreciated isn’t noted. We work long, stressful shifts, late nights, working with chefs (who are, as a race of people, generally bastards), biting our lip as we try, tirelessly, to accommodate customers at their most rude, demanding and inebriated because as much we would like to punch the foulmouthed, difficult drunk in the face, we need the tips. We need the tips to get a taxi home after our fourteen hour shift, to pick up bread and milk on the way so we can have tea and toast after picking at chips off the pass all day, or ever more likely, so we can walk to the next bar still serving and drown our miserable sorrows at being stuck in a menial job, enduring humanity at its most obnoxious while earning pittance.
That one pound extra an hour might not magically bestow good manners or patience on the general public, or make them any less of a git when intoxicated, but it might help us feel we are getting what we’re owed, that we’re earning an honest crust, that our work is not so menial, because we work pretty hard.
Actually, I retract that. Most other bar and waiting staff work hard and earn pittance. In the last few months I broke into the 10%, I earn above the minimum living wage, and honestly, I don’t have to work all that hard. I enjoy my job. I work as a supervisor in a small student bar where I am practically encouraged to berate bad manners or attitude as a kind of educational process. We close for the weekend and the summer holidays so I have the time and energy to try and become a writer (you know, because it’s such a well paid and rewarding profession). I work with my best friends. I have the greatest job ever, because it’s an honest crust. I’m paid well for the work I do, my employers show me respect, have faith in my ability and consider my contribution to be worth more than menial or minimum wage. It’s not a lot to ask, but it’s very much appreciated when you get it.