Horrible bosses

By   /   January 8, 2015  /   13 Comments

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If the hospitality industry in New Zealand recognises a lack of skilled positions, and this skill set incidentally includes waiting staff, why do they continue to pay such appalling wages?

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My first job when I left I school was working in a hotel in South Wales. The boss was a horrible boss. I was seventeen. He threw a cast iron frying pan at me when I dropped a bar meal. It was a thorough education in all aspects of the industry.  I learnt how to do everything from set the tables and fold the napkins, through to silver service of a Dover Sole and how to make all the classic cocktails. I worked from 6am till lock-up after midnight, with a couple of hours off in the afternoon, and all for minimum pay. The upside to this experience is that I can, even now, always find work. The downside is hospitality still demands workers do ludicrous hours, for minimum pay and there are still plenty of horrible bosses.

Every year as the summer season approaches, the familiar refrain is heard from the tourism industry. They can’t get enough staff, especially in the small tourist dependant towns. There aren’t enough locals that are either, willing and able or possess the correct skill set. This year the Tourism Industry Association in Queenstown went as far as lobbying Government to ensure that visa processing for migrant workers was streamlined. The Association was successful and in an agreement with the Ministry of Social Development and Immigration the rules for employers having to prove they can’t find skilled local staff will be relaxed until the middle of the year.

This raises several questions but let’s start with two. The first being that if the hospitality industry in New Zealand recognises a lack of skilled positions, and this skill set incidentally includes waiting staff, why do they continue to pay such appalling wages? I am not sure what un-skilled work is, I am yet to find any job that doesn’t require a set of skills that pertain specifically to that job if you want to be good at it. For anyone reading this who thinks waiting tables or working a bar is just a matter of picking up some plates, I cannot begin to tell you how wrong you are. Physically you need to be fit, strong and agile. You need to be able to work long hours on your feet without a break. You also need to have a good memory, be able to read peoples moods and be polite in the face of customers who can be patronising, rude and drunkenly abusive. The ability to remain friendly under fire is rare. Then there are all the skills that pertain specifically to the work itself. Like how to carry plates, clear tables and up sell.

I worked in a bar in the Bay of Islands the summer before last. They paid minimum wage $14.20, the staff worked straight shifts from 11am through till close which was 1am. The staff were charged for their food. Those flexible breaks that have just been written into labour law would be taken the following winter. No one complained. Well, not after Johan, the Dutch backpacker asked for a raise and was sacked. If you are a migrant or student you just want to last the season. If you are local you are hoping to still score a few hours over winter. I have no end of horrible boss stories. I could have gone down the road and worked for someone else. They were offering $16 an hour but were notorious for getting people in for only two hours and then sending them home and keeping the place understaffed. There are some establishments that have been treating their staff the same way for generations. Is this how the industry in New Zealand recognises ‘skilled’ workers? By underpaying, undervaluing and exploiting them.

The second issue is that the short term fix that has been introduced for fast tracking visas for migrants seems incongruous, due to the fact that the hospitality industry in New Zealand has a track record of migrant labour being exploited. Just prior to this accommodation being made for Queenstown we had the findings from the Employment Relation Authority (ERA) on the case of Genji the Japanese restaurant on Ponsonby Road that owed workers $10,000. This is just one example that made the media. My friend Johan of course never even knew his rights let alone exercised them. The ERA is aware that the exploitation of migrant hospitality workers is an issue, yet the government still agrees to fast-track the process. In Auckland I recently spoke to an Iranian friend who told me horror stories from kebab shops. This isn’t an ethnic issue. It is cross cultural exploitation that is prevalent across an industry.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  In the Bay of Islands at the Duke of Marlborough Hotel it appears the story is changing. In 2010 the hotel changed hands and was purchased by Riki Kinnaird and Anton Haagh. What makes them different is that according to the locals and people I spoke to who work there is they aren’t horrible. In fact, they have an excellent reputation as being good employers. I was so stunned by this news that at first I just didn’t believe it. So I went and asked. Let’s face it the guy deserves credit just for speaking to me. It’s the middle of the three busiest weeks of the year and I am a left wing blogger about to train as a union organiser.

The Duke of Marlborough is the oldest pub in the country. It is a brand as much as an institution. It’s had good times and bad. At the moment it is having, a resurgence. It’s looking great and it’s pumping. Riki tells me there is a saying in Russell- “If the Dukes doing well, Russell is doing well”.

I don’t doubt this at all. The Duke is the largest employer in town. They have 35 permanent staff, and then they hire another seventy for the summer season. I asked him about the Living Wage campaign. He wasn’t really aware of it but the fact is he thought that probably over 80% of the staff employed there would be on that or more. (Actually it appears it would be more than 80%. Only the runners in their first season are employed at a lower rate). It isn’t just that they pay a living wage that makes them respected employers. They also train up staff, they give them a good discount on food and beverage, and they hold social events for the staff and make sure their staff are feed if they are working long hours. Salaried staff get performance linked bonuses.

The Duke is also actively involved in the community. A local told me that it doesn’t matter what you are trying to fund-raise for, or promote, you can count on the Duke to come on board and offer sponsorship and support. They are involved in everything from the Santa Parade and Bird-man Weekend to beautifying the walkways for the Bay of Island Walking Weekend.

Let’s be honest though. I am impressed by all of this but I can still smell the capitalism on Riki’s breath, and I doubt he would deny it. It is obvious that this is as much about a good business model as altruism.  However you can’t dismiss the end result; they are committed to creating a good work environment, attracting staff and they don’t need special legislation to fill their vacancies. They are counting on their reputation to do that. It is working.

What I find really interesting is that what they are doing at the Duke would not be considered extraordinary in any other industry. They are recognising hospitality workers as skilled and paying them accordingly. The work is still hard, the hours unsociable, the tea breaks are rare and at this time of year the shifts can be long. The owners at The Duke may be proof that bosses don’t have to be horrible. But how bad has an industry become, whereby employers that are essentially just treating their staff fairly, are being written up by a lefty blogger as an example of how it should be done.

How poorly is an industry performing when an employer is deemed great for just being fair?

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13 Comments

  1. Save NZ says:

    Excellent article. I also have worked hospitality – lots of horrible bosses but some good ones too that actually invest in training you. Importing migrants is the NZ way to keep labour wages down, training minimal and property prices high, and to make sure poor employers do not have to change their ways. It is laughable to have unemployment in this country and then be putting ‘service staff’ as a migrant skill set. Most kiwis require those jobs to put themselves through university for a start. As Kate says you are always employable with those skills.

    In addition relying on migrants to fill you skill sets doesn’t work if you are a horrible employer. It’s not just the low paid – also happening to migrant doctors in this country who are coming for a better life only to be exploited and under valued.

    When Doctor’s try to change things they can’t, so just leave. Jobs are to contain and prevent bad situations being reported not to change bad situations and employ more doctors and nurses.

    http://werewolf.co.nz/2014/12/public-health-the-silent-crisis/

  2. XRAY says:

    “lobbying Government to ensure that visa processing for migrant workers was streamlined”… I think has gone on for years especially after the brave new world of the apprenticeship-less ’90’s.

    Example; The Post Office lines depot had a training school that many a school leaver went to and became skilled technicians for them of one sort or another. Along came privatisation and strangely enough not too far behind so to did immigrant workers to replace the countless skilled staff who were systemically laid off and who either moved on to other occupations or left NZ altogether. And of course training of that sort ceased to exist because training is an overhead and the then government was all too keen to accommodate such industries with “skill shortages” of their own making with migrants.

    Worst of all though is that immigrant labour can be abused to the max. They will not ask for more money or better conditions, rather they will take whatever shit is thrown at them standing up. This makes NZ a worse place but no one who matters seems to get it.

    Go to any fast food outlet and there is a very good chance there are not enough staff to meet demand and most certainly those workers there will be on the infamous zero hour contracts, the same workers who will be quietly looking for another job whilst they serve you. I feel very sorry for them but not for the business who lose custom through bad service as they save money by not employing enough staff and not treating those staff properly.

    The hospitality industry reaps what it sows.

  3. grumpystilskin says:

    I’m often surprised how understaffed a local busy golden arches business is.
    I treat myself once a month and no matter what time of the day there is never enough people to serve to waiting customers. The sense of panic is um, pretty high. We’re often told mcd’s became a world leader by improving systems. I fail to see that, Often.

    • Mike the Lefty says:

      When you see McD;s ads on TV there always appears to be an army of staff waiting to serve you. Funny that!

      • Wensleydale says:

        It’s another corporate lie. In much the same way their advertising material gives the impression the burgers are freshly made by Gordon Ramsey, but the burgers you actually get resemble something slapped together by a blind, multiple-amputee with Parkinson’s.

        “McDonald’s – I’m lovin’ it… or at least I would be if the pay and conditions weren’t so fucking awful.”

    • Dave Robinson says:

      It’s no treat mate, you’re feeding yourself shit food from a shit corporate. You have choices, make them wisely.

  4. adam says:

    I never truly understood why there were bad employers in the hospitality industry. Seriously, why would you treat your staff bad, it’s an industry which is particularly vulnerable to alternate industrial actions.

    Just a couple of examples – Water intake to an espresso machine can be simply and effectively shortened – which in turn produces poor coffee. Milk can be over steamed, coffee can be under or over extracted – indeed making a coffee can quickly become an exercise in who can produce the worst coffee.

    Food service – the best way to hurt a boss owner here is by being a good little worker. All plates work on margins – this profit can be eliminated by one simple thing – Filling up the plate – send out every plate from the kitchen full to overflowing. This is particularly funny when you know management have no idea the real cost of food, or understand what you’re being generous is doing to the bottom line.

    Booze – us the act in your favour. Tell a customer with a smile on your face you belive they are intoxicated and you can’t serve them under the law. Even when you’re sure they are sober. When you boss bitches at you about it, ask them if they will pay the fine for serving someone who is pissed – then quickly ask for more training. Spillage – use it to your advantage – spill drinks on patrons – especially ones who you think will complain. The ensuing argument can, and will probably empty a bar – people hate conflict.

    Just oh so many ways to hurt the bottom line. And I have said nothing about fridge or freezer doors. No talk about the use of complements to insult people.

    Why are there bad employers in hospitality – you’d think in such a vulnerable industry, employers would treat staff well.

    • Annie Cass says:

      I think the problem is that there are so many owner-managers in hospitality. That’s not a bad thing in itself, as the owner will want his business to work. But if a business is failing it’s down to bad management, and it’s hard to fire the manager if the manager is the owner! Getting the best out of your staff involves paying them well, treating them fairly and rewarding them when the business succeeds. Bad managers do none of that, and blame their floor staff when customers desert them. I have to say, Adam, that I deplore your sabotage techniques, but I can understand why a galley slave would want to hole the boat.

  5. Kate Kate says:

    And remember life is short …

    http://youtu.be/t6zgQH3tUKk

  6. Save NZ says:

    Another scam – fruit picking. We apparently need migrant labour to pick fruit.

    Well a young kiwi friend of mine went down to try to get off the dole with another girlfriend of hers, and she was advised it was too dangerous to stay there as she could be raped by the migrant Fijian Indian Labourers, fresh from Fiji or where ever they were from who were the preferred workers.

    The alternative accommodation choices were very few and very expensive not enough to actually afford if you were on minimum wages. Also accommodation was packed (that is the budget choices of backpackers and campgrounds).

    Need less to say she did not last long and she also struggled to get back on the dole as she had ‘left her job’.

    Yep fruit has to be picked but should it be at the expense of young kiwi workers and by pulling in migrant workers who are considered at risk of raping young girls?

    Not to mention the accommodation scams that seem to be along with it and the human trafficking problems when the workers are being exploited too.

    All in all, unskilled Kiwis should be doing fruit picking not importing in unskilled migrant workers who don’t speak English and struggle with the culture.

  7. Cagey says:

    Was talking with a friend over Chrismas and heard about the Newspaper Carriers. This had been for years been the first job for kids on bikes and I know of many low income families where is was the way those kids would afford those things they would otherwise not get. Resently it was changed to delivery by adults on scooters – to save costs. However these adult are not only on minimum wage but also have to rent their scooters off the company (they are not allowed their own transport). Our friend was cancelling his home delivery because he wasn’t getting it most nights but had a “meh” when he rang to explain that. From a relative who’s son works as a carrier they say only around 80 per cent is actually delivered as these guys feel it’s not worth their time to go back if they miss one. I’d like to know how much profit has been lost by this new scam – oh I mean sceme.

  8. Annie Cass says:

    How do employers not understand that you get what you pay for? If you underpay your staff, they will underperform. You pay peanuts, you get monkeys. You skimp on the peanuts, the monkeys go home. As to the whole business of importing migrant labour – that ‘s simple slavery. In a market where employment opportunities are so limited, and under a government ‘support’ system that is actively punitive, employers can be as thick or as cruel as they like and still find fresh bodies to man the oars of the ship of industry. So it is up to the law to defend us, and it won’t as long as our government is owned by those whose pockets benefit from a slave economy. So vote, sheeple! And keep nagging your MPs. Keep bringing your exploitation horror stories to you MPs. Don’t let them ever be able to say that they didn’t know!