The hospitality sector is built on sexist exploitation: what can students do to protect themselves?

Kate Hunter addresses the “just say yes” culture for women and non-binary people within the hospitality industry, ensuring that workplace exploitation isn’t normalised.

As with many Bristol freshers, my first year wasn’t just belting my heart out at ABBA nights or seeing how much alcohol I could absorb while still making my 9:00 am. Unlike some of my friends, I needed to work to stay afloat. I applied to as many places as I could, and, with someone who had no hospitality experience, was turned away from most jobs. Then, while scrolling through Indeed after a night out at Turtle Bay, I almost immediately heard back from a well-known bar in the city centre. ‘Hi Kate. Your CV makes you an ideal candidate for our waitress position. If you are around tomorrow please come in at 11:00 am for an interview’.

I was surprised to hear back so quickly, but relieved that my shoddy CV had caught someone’s attention. So, hung-over, I trudged down the next day for the interview. It hit half eleven, then twelve, when the manager rushed out, shook my hand so hard I thought my arm would pop out its socket, and gestured for me to start the interview one hour after I had arrived.

‘I can see in your eyes that you’re perfect for this job. You’ve got that readiness to work don’t you?’ I was so shocked that I could only smile mutely. My eyes? I thought, if anything my eyes are still red from all the piña coladas I’d had twelve hours before. But if this man saw something that made me ideal for the job I desperately needed, who was I to say no? ‘So when can you start?’ ‘Start?’ ‘Yes, when are you around? Shall I pencil you in on Friday 11-9, Saturday 11-11 and Sunday 10-11 and see how you go?’ I was thrilled. I’d managed to land a job without having to answer any difficult questions, and I was going to make over £300 in just a few days.

Two months, and two separate cases of sexual assault later, I quit my first job.

Another interview rolled around. Now I had one hospitality gig under my belt it was easy to land another. And, it would be different this time. A Michelin star restaurant in Clifton. Family oriented. Far less hours. After accepting the offer, I even sat down with my manager who showed me a handbook on boundaries in the workplace. Aren’t I lucky? I thought. Aren’t I lucky to work in a restaurant with such high standards for its employees? Nothing bad will happen to me this time.

One month, and another case of sexual assault later, I quit my second job.

This continued to happen to me, no matter which restaurant, bar or pub I joined. Family run, huge chains, day hours only. Every place came with a whole host of issues. I worked twelve hour shifts with no breaks, I was prevented from going to the toilet for hours on end, I had my shirt unbuttoned by my manager to ‘attract more customers’. And it wasn’t just me who experienced this kind of treatment. When I started my first job, the company took on ten other students. When I left, only three remained. From my second job, I had several other women reach out to me, telling me the same person had abused them. Why does this keep happening to us?

With behaviour remaining unchallenged, students desperately needing work, and with no unions to protect us, young people, especially women are being exploited within the hospitality sector. Many of us don’t even recognise that certain behaviour is wrong until months after it occurs. Many trivialise it, and for those who do recognise it, we can feel scared to speak out. For Bristol students contending with extortionate rents and minimal student loans, the risk of losing that vital extra income feels far greater than tolerating the odd comment, the long hours or even cases where there is a total abuse of power.

Sexism in the hospitality sector is deeply structural, and can only be truly eradicated by widespread economic and cultural change. As individuals, unfortunately, there are limitations as to how we can protect ourselves from this reality. And, ultimately, it is not our responsibility to ‘find’ appropriate work, but for employers to facilitate it. Collective action, then, has to be part of the answer.

Artwork by Charlotte Carpenter

And yet, alongside this, I believe there are measures we can take as individuals to protect ourselves from some of the worst exploitation. Drawing on my own experience, here is a list of red flags to look out for when looking for a job. By signposting these now, I hope others won’t have to experience them first-hand. 

1.      Hours: As students, it’s impossible to work a full time job as well as studying. Most employers who hire students know this. If someone wants you to work more than fifteen hours a week then your job will take precedence over your degree. Make it clear what days you are available, and what hours you can do. Don’t compromise on your time.

2.      Know your rights. Legally, if you work for six hours, you are entitled to a twenty minute break, minimum. If someone is cheating you out of a break, that is illegal, and you have every right to push back against it.

3.      Notice how your colleagues talk to you. Nobody ever has a right to comment on your appearance at work. This may seem obvious, but these remarks can often be hidden as compliments or passing comments. You don’t have to tolerate this. Ever.

4.      Touching. Unless you are literally about to fall over, nobody has a justified excuse to touch you. There is never a need for your space to be invaded.

5.      After work hours. It’s great to let off steam with your colleagues. But if there’s someone you get a bad vibe from, there’s no pressure to maintain a relationship with them outside of work. Go. Have a good time. But not to gratify someone else.

6.      The gender ratio at your workplace. No female managers? No female colleagues? There’s probably a reason why.

It’s not easy to recognise these behaviours, and even harder to push back against them. Ideally, we’d all feel we have the capacity to stand up to this sexist discrimination, and be able to rely on trade unions to protect us. But standing up to your sexist boss is not a feminist act if you don’t have the emotional or physical capacity to do so. There’s nothing emancipatory or ‘girlboss’ about having to compromise on your emotional wellbeing. Sometimes leaving quietly, as frustrating as it can be, is the best way to go. You have to do what protects you: whether that’s writing a complaint letter, having a conversation, or handing in your notice. Never believe that there are no laws in hospitality. Know your boundaries. Know your worth. And never settle for anything less.

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