The pandemic pushed too many hospitality workers onto the streets and exposed the industry's flaws, says Anna Sebastian.
In March 2020 the world shut down and after two weeks of cleaning my flat and watching Sex and the City, I knew I couldn't do that much longer. I began looking for something where I could help people and started volunteering at Glass Door homeless charity at Chelsea Methodist Church. It was there I heard about the non-profit Under One Sky and became part of an emergency response team.
We went out every night carrying huge bags of sandwiches, flasks of tea and coffee, hot meals, socks and clothes. We had teams in five different locations in London and would feed anywhere between 300 and 700 people each night.
The situation was truly desolate. All public bathrooms in London apart from two were shut down; coffee shops were closed; there were no commuters to give loose change; no day shelters; hostels had closed; and prisons were releasing inmates early as it was deemed unsafe for them to be in prison. The government claimed that everyone was given shelter, but the numbers proved otherwise. We were all told to stay at home, but plenty had no homes to go to.
We heard and saw everything: heartbreak, drug use, domestic violence, tears of sadness, lack of hope. We gave CPR, talked people off bridges, made thousands of sandwiches and baked cakes. So many people in hospitality supported us with items that we needed. Our homes became filled with donations of clothes, sleeping bags and the like. We created and sold a cocktail to raise money for the charity, raising over £5,000.
I met so many hospitality workers whose roles had been made redundant from well-known restaurant groups and bars, even some hotels. They had literally lost their homes as they couldn't pay rent or were not given furlough, even when it was an option. I met a chef I used to work with who was receiving furlough pay, but it simply was not enough to pay the rent because service charge was not included in the scheme. He was waiting to be called back to work but, in the meantime, was living 100 metres from his workplace in a box. What struck me is that these are our people, the people we say are our family in orientation or a handbook. These are the people we sell the dream to, but as organisations we did not support or help.
I met a furloughed chef who was waiting to be called back to work but, in the meantime, unable to pay the rent, was living 100 metres from his workplace in a box
It was incredibly eye-opening, and you realise that, while the hospitality industry is amazing, there are many flawed systems that up until now we've never forced ourselves to address – from service charge to work-life balance.
Now is the opportunity to really deep-dive into what we can do to bring about positive change. We need to put things in place to ensure we don't find ourselves in this position again, where you've got staff having to survive on minimum wage, minimal furlough and ending up on the streets.
We've had this mass exodus of really, really good people, because why should somebody only get their rota on a Friday for the following Monday? Why should somebody have to get two or three night buses home at 3am? Why can't a taxi be paid for? It's not safe, whether you're male or female. Numerous hotels across the UK have spent thousands on their reopenings – but how does that benefit the staff members inside the buildings? That could go towards three or four departments getting taxis home for a month.
We as an industry need to do better. We need to stop being bound by tradition and habit, and really make changes instead of just talking about it. We need to change how we look after our staff and consider how we can really have an impact on our own people before we start looking after the guests. This industry is hard work and labour-intensive, but it's down to us to make a challenging environment better for our staff.
Anna Sebastian is head of brand at Served Drinks, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can get in touch with Under One Sky, or donate, here
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