1. Tell us about your workplace (keep it sketchy if you prefer)
I used to be a waitress for a couple of well known national temping agencies in major northern cities. My workplace and group of colleagues was different on almost every shift. We’d have regular clients like the Premier League football clubs and the local council’s catering and hospitality arm, but from one day to the next I could be anywhere from doing silver service for the Royal Family at a racecourse, to handing out champagne at someone’s wedding in a stately home, to serving canapés to Richard Branson and Virgin executives at a corporate event. I did this job for around four years as a student, and most of the other staff I worked with were students or migrant workers.
2. Are sexist comments and incidents a regular occurrence and a definite problem in your workplace (both as you directly experience it and also as you are aware of second hand)?
I wouldn’t say they were regular, but when they did happen they were so explicit that you realized they were part of a culture that pervaded throughout and therefore didn’t need to be expressed in the way of comments – it was just the way everything was. Kitchen hierarchy and the macho atmosphere with the chefs wasn’t nearly as bad as the way the managers used to talk about staff. They were openly racist too.
3. Is homophobia or racism a problem in your workplace?
I never encountered homophobia towards gay men – gay men made up a number of the more nasty managers and they were just as sexist as the rest. There was definitely an expectation that women should look ‘feminine’ though, which I guess could at times be homophobic towards women as well as sexist. The racism was the worst thing, and it was tied up with sexism. I heard twice, on two separate occasions in two different cities (with two different employers), managers say ‘I want the pretty girls up front’, and when they picked the staff they wanted, they picked the white women, and the black and Asian staff were left to work in the kitchens, ‘behind the scenes’. The really sad thing was that the black and Asian staff, who were often far more competent and experienced (as migrant workers they tended to be doing this stuff more regularly than a lot of the white staff who were just odd-jobbing their way through a degree), didn’t bat an eyelid. The white women were often incredibly embarrassed, as well as clueless as they had no experience of working in the front of house roles which require certain skills they simply didn’t have (e.g. champagne service, or sommelier work).
There was another time when the manager’s Chanel aftershave had gone missing from the safe we were using whilst out on a sports event in the back of the marquee. He was fuming, and said no one could go home until he’d found out who it was. But the first thing he did was make all of the black staff turn out their bags, and then when he found nothing, he asked the white men. He didn’t even ask the white women. In the end it had just fallen down the back of the safe anyway, and he didn’t even apologise.
I was so shocked at these examples, but as everyone else seemed to just get on with it, and because the managers were so intimidating and the work could be taken away from you for the slightest thing (because we weren’t contracted), there wasn’t much I felt I could do.
At the time I wasn’t in a trade union, nowadays I’m an experienced rep in a public sector workplace and the contrast is just incredibly stark. A comment like the above would have somebody disciplined or sacked. I think it really shows how horrendous conditions are in unorganized, casualised workplaces and how far we have to go. I also think it’s a pretty damning reminder that liberation should be at the heart of campaigning for workers’ rights.