Photo by Lois Kapila

After a difficult few years following the economic crash, the Irish hospitality sector seems to be doing well.

The number of tourists visiting our country each year has been rising. The volume of sales in bars is increasing. Hotels in Dublin are reporting very high occupancy rates.

Employment in accommodation and food services has also recovered; there were 153,200 people working in this industry by the third quarter of 2016. Contrast that with the lowest point in 2011, when the number of jobs in hospitality was at 110,700.

But while business is good, working conditions for employees in bars, restaurants and hotels do not seem to have improved at the same pace.

Importantly, this sector is characterised by very low earnings. In 2016, the average weekly pay in accommodation and food services was €338.09, which was the lowest amongst all sectors, and significantly lower than the national average pay of €700. These low wages are a combination of low hourly rates and low weekly hours.

Nearly 40 percent of the Irish hospitality workforce is employed on a part-time basis and many have so-called “if-and-when” contracts. Under these contracts a worker has guaranteed minimum hours per week (often as few as 8 to 10) but can get more if there is a demand.

For a recently completed project looking at working conditions in Ireland – carried out by the think-tank TASC where I work – we interviewed people currently working in Dublin’s hotels, bars, and restaurants. All of these interviews included mentions of the idea of flexibility. In most cases, this was flexibility that suited the employers.

According to our participants, shifts were usually difficult to predict and often non-negotiable. People’s everyday lives and finances were, as a result, impossible to plan.

The flexibilisation of the employment relationship is not a direct result of the recession, but rather a part of a long-term process. While part-time work has always been a feature of the hospitality sector, these jobs used to have more stability. Salaries were much closer to the national average and regular employees could avail of pay increments based on their experience.

Most of those who have worked in this industry for longer agreed that the change in working conditions started to occur in the mid-1990s. There is common agreement that this can be linked to the 1994 Dublin bartenders’ strike which was planned during the FIFA World Cup in July that year. After that, employers started to move away from the traditional employment model and instead relied on a more casualised, contingent workforce.

The first ones to take hourly-paid work were the students seeking an extra income. For many of them (as it still is the case) the low-pay and flexible nature of these job was less problematic. It suited their needs.

Following the EU enlargement in 2004, this student workforce was joined by the migrants for whom the earnings were attractive, as the wages were much higher than in their home countries.

During the boom, however, flexible arrangements seemed to accommodate both sides. Casual work was paid by the hour, but employees had more power to negotiate their shifts. This was one of the findings of the Migrants Careers and Aspirations Project, which we started back in 2007, just before the crash.

I remember interviewing a Polish waitress, who worked on a casual basis in a large Dublin hotel. She told how she would ring her manager every Wednesday, ask him about the available hours, and then pick the ones that suited her schedule. It was not a problem if she wanted to travel and therefore was not available for a week or two; she could also make sure to have Monday mornings off in order to go to salsa parties on Sunday night.

This was not the case of workers who we interviewed a year ago. Most did not have the luxury of negotiating their shifts. In many establishments, rosters are prepared on a week-to-week basis and are given to the employees at very short notice.

While there are some managers who would take individuals’ need for time off into account, in many places the schedule is arbitrary.

In theory, according to the “if-and-when” contracts, employees can refuse to take on unsuitable shifts; in practice, this is often not possible. Not taking on unsuitable hours can result in different forms of punishment, for example cutting hours to the contractual minimum, or assigning the most inconvenient shifts to the person.

Not only are people given short notice of their weekly roster, some are also expected to be “on call” without being paid for the waiting time. There was also evidence of situations where people were sent home when they were no longer needed, even though they were scheduled for more hours.

In some extreme cases, workers were called to come in as there was a demand, but told to leave after an hour or two when the customers left. All these made the planning and the predictability of their finances even less feasible.

There are now more people working in the Irish hospitality sector than there was during the boom. This is quite visible in Dublin, where around a third of the accommodation and food services workforce is based.

It is hard not to notice the crop of new establishments every month, how busy restaurants are on weekend nights, and how bars are filled with more and more tourists.

This growth is of course good news to our economy. So is the job creation that accompanies it. But, nevertheless, those working in the hospitality sector should be able to share their employers’ success and see their working conditions, as well as their pay, improving.

Alicja Bobek works as a researcher at TASC. She has a PhD in Sociology from Trinity College Dublin

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