It’s not just about PUP: why hospitality workers are staying away

Opinion: the time has come for the hospitality sector to reassess itself and what it represents

By Lorraine Ryan and Juliet Mac Mahon, University of Limerick

The hospitality sector is a significant contributor to the Irish economy, accounting for 7% of employment before the pandemic. There is no doubt that this sector has been one of the hardest hit by the Covid crisis. Government health restrictions meant widespread closures and reduced business capacity causing widespread and significant disruption for both employers and workers.

Since the reopening, the woes of the sector have continued, with Fáilte Ireland noting 90% of hospitality organisations are experiencing staff shortages. The impact on businesses has been severe. Many are unable to operate at full capacity and are closing their doors on certain days. Others have taken the difficult decision to close permanently.

Various reasons have been put forward for the exodus of workers from the sector: Much work in the sector is considered low paid. A 2019 ESRI report noted that 30% of minimum wage workers in Ireland worked in the hotel and restaurant sector.

From RTÉ Radio 1’s Drivetime, Adrian Cummins from the Restaurant Association of Ireland on major staff shortages reported in the restaurant industry.

Then, there’s the work itself. Whilst it can be rewarding, working in hotels, bars and restaurants can also be physically demanding and requires considerable emotional labour. Working hours can be long and unpredictable, characterised by split shifts and/or constantly varying rosters.

New requirements within the sector since Covid have added to this workload. Workers now must deal with additional cleaning measures, check vaccine certificates, and ensure customer compliance with health and safety measures. The restaurant sector’s reputation has not been helped by anecdotal stories of students being asked to work ‘trial shifts’ of up to a week for free and the recent case of a worker paid by a bucket of coins. It is said that many workers have reassessed their lives and chosen to seek work in other sectors or in the case of migrant workers (on which the sector heavily depends) to simply leave Ireland.

The Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) has also proved controversial. Research highlighted that the original payment was 50% higher than the gross weekly wage of the average minimum wage employee in the hospitality sector (€232.30). It has been asserted that many low paid workers prefer to remain on the PUP rather than return to often challenging and low paid work.

From RTÉ Radio 1’s Saturday with Katie Hannon, a panel discussion on PUP payments and labour shortages in the hospitality sector

So what’s the solution? There have been calls from leaders within the sector for the PUP to be abolished, but the payment is currently being phased out and it remains to be seen if this will have an impact on labour shortages. Given that shortages were seen before the pandemic, it’s possible that recruitment issues will dog the sector post-PUP. Employers are seeking supports from Government in the form of tax breaks such as a return to lower VAT rates, changes to work permits and visa systems for migrant workers.

While the changes called for by the industry may have some impact in the short term, they externalise the problem and fail to acknowledge the aspects of work that make the industry unattractive for many. Perhaps leaders need to carry out a root and branch honest evaluation of working conditions across the sector (positive and negative) and examine how to increase sustainability for workers and employers alike?

Sustainability is a concept normally associated with climate change and the environment, but sustainable human resource management is gaining traction. This has been defined as “the adoption of strategies and practices that enable the achievement of financial, social, and ecological goals, with an impact inside and outside of the organization and over a long-term time horizon”. The broader social goal involves organisations incorporating elements such as ‘decent work’ into core policies and Irish organisations, such as An Post, have adopted this as a core strategy.

RTÉ Brainstorm video on the low-paid workers who kept Ireland open during the pandemic

There is no denying that the sector operates on tight margins and that pay is never going to be at the highest end of the spectrum. However, some areas for consideration include

(i) Talking to workers and their representative groups in determining the future structure of work within the sector.

(ii) While fluctuating working hours may work for some groups such as students, more predictability needs to be considered for at least a proportion of workers to achieve longer term stability and retention.

(iii) The sector, especially the hotel sector, could examine formalised career pathways – not just at managerial levels, but for relatively low skilled workers who enter the industry. Potential training and career advancement opportunities may increase the attractiveness of the sector despite relatively lower pay.

From RTÉ News in 2018, a survey has found that many hotel and restaurant workers are not receiving tips

(iv) It may be time for the industry to re-evaluate the issues around low pay and there are already government supports available. Joint Labour Committees facilitate wage setting which can level the playing field for all organisations within the sector. Employers have been reluctant to engage with this process, but this warrants reconsideration.

The hospitality sector is of huge importance to the economy of Ireland. However, the time has come for the sector to reassess itself and what it represents. Many of its workers have clearly done so during the pandemic. Perhaps a more sustainable approach to human resource management and employment relations can provide some answers.


Filed Under: HotelsHRHospitality

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