Low Wages Ignore the Many Demands of Bar and Hotel Work

Alicja Bobek

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


Earnings in hospitality are the lowest among all sectors of the Irish labour market.

In 2016, the average annual pay in the accommodation and food-services sector labourcostsannualdata2016/">was just  ‎labourcostsannualdata2016/">16,580. This was less than a half the national average.

Such low wages are a result of a combination of the high percentage of part-time work in this sector, and relatively low hourly rates.

In one of my previous columns, I discussed the ongoing flexibilisation of employment in the Irish hospitality sector. Often, workers have “if and when” or “hybrid” contracts. This has further implications for their incomes, as earnings are not only low, but unpredictable.

However, this is not the only issue with employment conditions in many bars, restaurants, and hotels across the country. There’s also the fact that, importantly, low pay in this sector does not reflect the nature of these jobs.

Despite being classified as “services”, many occupations in this sector include work that is physically demanding, which has health and safety implications. Also, there is so-called “emotional labour” required of front-line staff.  None of this is recognized financially.

We explored these issues as part of the Working Conditions Project conducted by TASC, where I work as a researcher.

As part of this study, we interviewed a number of hospitality-sector workers, who were mainly based in Dublin. Even though some of them really liked their jobs, it was clear that their work was hard and sometimes difficult.

First of all there are the physical demands. One of the bartenders we interviewed told us that (out of curiosity) he once used a pedometer to measure how much he walked on a typical night. By the end of his shift, he’d walked more than 30 kilometres.

A caterer in her 50s told us that her work involved being on her feet for the entire day. She had to go part-time because she felt that she could not do this on a full-time basis anymore. This meant a lower wage, but she didn’t have any other choice.

Some of the jobs are also prone to (mainly minor) injuries. These are usually not life threatening and can be dealt with on-site.

Work-related accidents in bars and restaurants mainly involve cuts and burns. Those working in hotels’ accommodation departments are exposed to back injuries.

The latter is a result of “invisible” work: guests expect their rooms to be in perfect condition, but don’t realise how much labour is involved. There is a lot of bending and heavy lifting, especially in upscale hotels, where cleaners turn the mattresses on regular basis.

In many cases, these issues are not treated properly, as taking time off can be a major problem.

A large proportion of these jobs are paid hourly, and have no guaranteed sick pay. Missing a day of work due to an injury means loss of income, and, with low earnings, workers cannot afford to stay home.

In one of our interviews, a girl who used to work for a fast-food chain told us how her colleague burnt himself so severely that he had to be taken to a hospital. He was back to work the next day. The manager reassigned him to making burgers, as “you can make burgers with one hand”.

Another interviewee, who worked as an accommodation assistant, explained how her co-worker continued to work through pain. He suffered from a bad back injury, but was afraid to lose his hours. He did not report his problems to the management.

Jobs in the hospitality sector can also be psychologically demanding, especially for the front-line staff.

An American sociologist, Mary Gatta, described it as “juggling food with emotions”. Others refer to it as “emotional” or “aesthetic” labour. It is both self- and other-oriented, as the employee has to respond to the customer as well as control their own performance.

Furthermore, those working night shifts are especially exposed to unpleasant experiences.

Some of our interviewees, particularly those working Dublin city centre, described their work as dangerous. One told us management preferred to assign night shifts to female employees, because customers were less likely to “swing a punch on a woman”.

There are also technological changes that affect the working conditions in the hospitality sector. There is now additional pressure coming from the management after the development of online review platforms, such as Tripadvisor.

In the past, customers complained to the managers while they were still on-site. Workers were thus able either to defend themselves or to resolve the issue. This is often no longer the case. The online reviews are completed after the visit. The customer is not there anymore.

In a 1986 Washington Post article, Amitai Etzioni coined a term “McJobs”. It initially referred to employment in the fast-food sector, but it is also now used to describe service work in general.

Such work is supposed to be low-skilled and low-paid, standardised and boring. The term also suggests that jobs in services are easy and can be done by anyone.

Etzioni was right about the pay, but one could argue that the other characteristics of “McJobs” are over-simplified. Work in hospitality is hard and cannot be done by everybody.

Even if many jobs in this sector do not require a certificate, there are certain skills required to do the work properly. Let’s not forget about all of these when we head to town this summer, or when we are spending our holidays somewhere else in Ireland.

We are right to expect good service in bars, restaurants or hotels, but it is worth remembering how demanding working there is.

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

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