Following the launch of our new national campaign around working conditions in the bar and hospitality sectors, our Branch Secretary has written an article for the Bristol Cable highlighting the issues of bar and hospitality workers in Bristol. You can read it below or on The Cable, which is a local media cooperative in Bristol: click here to follow the link.

Ever since I can remember, Bristol has wanted to be seen as somewhere that Does the Right Thing. Council House policy from the 1970’s nurtured local arts and social projects, through rate relief and peppercorn rents. Residents in every area of the city have supported local independent projects and businesses through thick and thin, and fought for them when they faced trouble. Activists can trace a line of struggle against oppression back to the Kingswood miners and beyond.

As we live and think, so we eat and drink. Ethically and locally sourced, organic, Fair Trade – Bristol was an early adopter of these ideas and after 50 years the roots run deep, throughout the ‘real city’ as well as the tourist areas that we promote to the rest of the world. Local beers and ciders served up in a ‘free house’ pub, fair trade sugar packets with your cafe cuppa, free range chicken expected on the restaurant menu. Unless we’re going somewhere for cheap price and big portion size, Bristolians expect a certain standard, when the food is brought to the table or the pint is smudged into the beermat.

But what about the waiter that brings the food to the table? Or the tender who places the pint? What about the cook that roasts the free range chicken? Do we care if they are “fair trade” or “ethically sourced”?

The Cable’s investigation into the catering sector last year highlighted what staff, and the unions that work to protect them, already knew:

Increased customer demand for quality and value, alongside a deliberate weakening of the laws that protect the rights of workers, has led bosses to maintain profits by reducing wages and benefits for their employees.

In order to provide ‘flexibility’ for employers to succeed in a cut-throat global economy, governments of all stripes have passed laws removing the rights and protections that employees had against exploitation.

In such an atmosphere, it comes as no surprise that Bad Bosses have thrived in the Bar and Hospitality industry: bullies, creeps, corner-cutters and outright thieves.

An example is this popular city centre cafe, with Trip Advisor reviews that talk of “the best independent cafe in Bristol”, “a Bristol institution” where “friendly staff couldn’t do enough for us”. Great for the customer, but for the ‘friendly staff’ the experience is very different.

Unpaid trials that can last up to a week. Wages witheld as “deposits” that are not returned. Constant bullying by the boss to provide a 5-star service on 1-star wages, with some migrant staff paid less than the National Minimum Wage (this has been reported to HMRC – check their website for details of how you can too). Unpaid overtime demanded as a matter of course, and the constant threat of the sack if the boss decides your face doesn’t fit.

But what can we do?

What can Bar and Hospitality Workers do when faced with conditions like this? The IWW is a grassroots union for all workers. In the words of IWW legend Joe Hill, who died 100 years ago this month: “Don’t Mourn, Organise!” The IWW has launched a national campaign to sign up workers in the industry, and then skill them up to fight back against bully bosses. The next meeting of the Bristol branch is on Thursday 12 November, 7pm at Hydra Bookshop, Old Market Street. See our website or email me for more details.

And, what can the customers of restaurants, pubs and cafes do to help? Bristolians can do the same as they have done for decades: Do the Right Thing. Give a Damn. Find out how much the staff of your local bar or caff are paid: Living Wage or just the Minimum? (If you’re paying over £1.50 for a cuppa, is the minimum really OK?). Dig deeper than the good service and the smile: do staff get proper breaks, does the boss play fair? Add what you find out to your Trip Advisor review, tell your friends, get the word out.

Change needs to come at the local level, in Bristol, by normal Bristolians campaigning for change. This is how fair, ethical improvements have been made in the past.

One Day, the IWW wants to see a world beyond work, where people can choose what to do with their time, rather being forced to do menial, meaningless tasks for money. But, that’s a long way off! As is the change needed at national level to restore rights and protections for workers against bad bosses.

In the meantime, we are pushing for Bristol to become a a “Fair Work” city – better terms and conditions for all, starting with the Bar and Hospitality sector, and we want you to push with us.