Recent debate around a ‘skills shortage’ in Northern Ireland seems to be running in a surreal parallel universe to the actual job adverts those in the local employment market spend so much of their time scouring.
Let’s take a closer look at the near-billion pounds hospitality industry as an example of a stated skills shortage area: there’s little evidence to an outside observer that the pay and conditions often offered to hospitality employees represent much better than a ‘bare minimum’ mentality.
Meanwhile, evidence of unethical tipping policies in some local businesses paints an even bleaker picture and erodes much sympathy for larger employers’ cries of a skills shortage while it continues.
I recently asked Twitter for one example of a hospitality employer – besides one local café – offering this basic standard: support for genuine fair pay, good career progression and a positive approach to tips.
How many examples were received? Zero.
Either I’m not all that important and worth replying too (which, thankfully, is very likely) or our celebrated local industry – especially the chain bar and hotel side of things – has little or no examples of the cruise ship and tourism rush trickling down to employees.
I’d love to be proven wrong on the latter.
Some replies and messages I DID receive, however, were illuminating…
Skills Shortage or Fair Play Shortage?!
Like NI’s skills shortage, the subject of a fair approach to tipping has been in the headlines.
I received direct messages about multiple local bars who dock staff *from their tips* in the event of a diner walking out without paying or if a till shows a shortage.
This is worth pausing to consider: a local hospitality employee, often paid an hourly rate, could be working a shift in the knowledge that some of their pay could be lost due to the type ‘shrinkage’ their customers – including tippers – would expect the business to carry.
In some cases, staff who hadn’t used a particular till or weren’t serving diners could find their pooled tips docked.
Would an electrical shop turn to its sales team for compensation if a shoplifter strikes? Why single out hospitality workers for special treatment?
Let’s be blunt (and if you’ll excuse my shock and anger as a tipping customer): an industry where minimal wage payments are already rife has no authority to complain about a skills shortage if unethical docking of pay also takes place.
I won’t be revealing who the tip-docking bars are – I don’t have the legal cover – but if you want to know if your local removes tips punitively and/ or supports fair pay? Just ask. And consider, if you like, finding a new regular if you don’t like the answer.
Skills Shortage or Pay Shortage?
While potential employees moving away from NI seems to vex the industry, it’s difficult to find examples on Glassdoor of employers, particularly hotels, doing much to persuade potential colleagues to stay.
This is from the listing for a local ‘resort’ hotel:
Examples have also been seen of one major hotel advertising for an experienced, qualified marketing colleague with a wide range of skills for circa £18,000pa.
The rural location of the hotel (beyond practical use of public transport for most) raises the question: how much pay is left after transport and accommodation costs?
With a plentiful supply of graduates in a difficult job market, some businesses seem keen to apply an opportunistic, ‘race to the bottom’ approach while our ever-growing tourism repute is racking up the millions.
Skills Shortage or Ethics Shortage?
If the definition of ethics is ‘how you behave when no one is looking’, what response should we expect from those who SHOULD be looking?
We regularly see yet another hotel launch, another smiling MLA at a photoshoot.
And we regularly see local hotels promoted by officialdom as beacons of local business.
How much thought do local politicians give to business ethics? How much consideration is given to employer ethics when a business is promoted by officials?
If the answer is merely that businesses ‘are legally compliant’ then those who staff and power the hospitality boom are being short-changed by a ‘legal minimum is our maximum’ ethos being accepted by those who should be digging deeper.
Skills Shortage or Information Shortage?
Here’s a thought: if money is pouring into the hotel trade as quickly as we can build new hotels, and if hotels are getting busier with every new cruise ship and bumper Christmas, which parties would support a ‘scores on the doors’ for larger hospitality businesses showing a summary of fair pay, turnover, tips and career progression?
Too expensive? Fine.
Which of our rapidly growing local, large hospitality companies would be willing to put employer ethics information ‘on their doors’ or – at the very least, social media – voluntarily?
And if not, why not?
Skills Shortage or Oversight Shortage?
There may be – in fact, I hope there are – examples of bars and business who are doing better for their team members.
(In fact, know any? Tag me on Twitter and I’ll be delighted to share as there are other people keen take their custom to businesses with higher standards of treatment of employees).
But job ads, and silence when questions are asked about fair play on social, would suggest any positive examples are the exception.
However, it’s fair to keep our focus on hotel groups and larger bars/ chains. Independent bars suffer crippling rates bills and steep overheads. That’s no excuse, of course, for unethical tipping policies where this does occur.
My own grandfather was a proud, professional bar steward who enjoyed fair pay, a career and good treatment.
But I don’t work in the trade. I’m simply a customer who has had enough of minimum wage job ads and reports of dubious tipping policies in the face of a tourist industry where customers are clamouring to spend their money. The industry complaining about a ‘skills shortage’, then, is the last straw.
In short: as a customer I want to know how staff are being treated by local businesses. And you’d be entitled to ask the same question.
On that, I stumbled on an interesting survey: what happens when hospitality workers themselves are asked about their employers? A UK study of hospitality employees revealed the areas those surveyed would want to see improved:
“That challenge was illustrated by a YouGov/Deputy survey, Retaining British Hospitality, published in September 2018. The survey asked more than 1,000 hotel workers what the sector could do to improve staff retention.
“Their recommendations included better pay and benefits (63%); more control over work life and shift patterns (55%); a stable income and/or guaranteed hours (52%); better career prospects (42%); more transparency from employers over shifts (32%); increased training and development (25%); and greater support from managers (21%).”
But are they actually heard? Like an grim amalgam of every episode of Undercover Boss, the linguistic gymnastics in this coverage of the research linked above, as it tries desperately to suggest almost anything except ‘pay more money’, is almost impressive.
Avoidance of this one question by apologists, lest they embarrass the giants and their chance of a scrap of the spoils at the top of industry, is fairly typical.
Locally, we could also ask why there’s little sign of many others, including public representatives and officials who applaud and promote our hotel operators as bastions of progress, asking more on our behalf.
Perhaps those who represent us spend too much time being dazzled by glossy launches to ask questions on behalf of those who pay their way.
But with the avalanche of money pouring into Belfast in particular, the people who power the industry – and their customers – are within their rights to ask when the benefits of goldmine Belfast will start to materialise in more pockets.
Let’s summarise the ethics around this another way: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
After all, if paying customers find out how their money, and tips, are being shared they might just vote with their feet. Why run the risk?
Who’ll step forward and show that their colleagues are genuinely worth a lot more than a ‘the legal minimum is our ethical maximum’ ethos when it comes to pay and working policies?
Image licensed for re-use by pixabay.
Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture, identity and media.
He also blogs at: