Put-upon at the Ritz

Neda Neynska

To supplement my freelance writing income, I started working as a waitress in the staff restaurant of the News Building in London Bridge a few months after it was renamed by Rupert Murdoch (it used to be known as the Baby Shard) and inaugurated by Boris Johnson. If I managed to ignore the curry-stained newspapers with their anti-immigration front pages while clearing the lunch, I could finish a shift with my dignity largely intact. We had a half-hour break, more than the twenty minutes required by law. Most people were nice – including, I suppose, the writers of anti-immigration copy. Nearly everyone employed in the restaurant was foreign, and most of us were European (there was one Londoner on what must have been the most boring gap year in history). My manager was Italian. The hospitality industry is the largest employer of EU-born workers in Britain; 94 per cent of them would fail to meet the visa requirements for non-EU nationals.

I also worked in various upmarket West London hotels. A shift would begin with a briefing on morale and discipline from a very well-groomed manager (who was almost always Italian, French, Swiss or Polish). After the obligatory flannel about the hotel’s ‘values’, staff would get shouted at for having creases in their uniforms, unpolished shoes, bad posture, no sense of urgency. More often than not, the upcoming event would be described as ‘very, very VIP’ – which included dinners for financial services providers; weddings with film stars and minor royals among the guests; and a surprising number of birthday parties for white men over 50 called Richard.

Shifts in hotels are notoriously long – often going over 14 hours – and overtime is an unspoken rule if you want to be called back for another shift. My overtime was never paid at a higher hourly rate. You often don’t get a break. My first shift at the Ritz involved eight hours of polishing champagne flutes and silverware with hot steam under a strand of blue light. I wasn’t allowed to lean against a cupboard, let alone eat. ‘People pay a lot of money to be here,’ a manager once told us. ‘I can’t tell them they are not getting their dessert on time because the staff has to eat.’ When breaks are given, they are rarely longer than fifteen minutes. Shifts are never shorter than six hours. There is a strange kind of humiliation in having to ask your manager to use the bathroom, and an even stranger one in his saying ‘no’. Sometimes there is simply no time, because service is relentless.

I was born in Bulgaria, one of the most vilified countries in the EU, but in my six years of living and studying in England, I was never made to feel less, or different, until I started working in London’s luxury hotels. And it wasn’t an issue of nationality: not for me, or for my Croatian, Lithuanian, Italian, Spanish or Brazilian colleagues, senior management included. Not being allowed the breaks you’re legally entitled to isn’t an issue of nationality, or immigration control. When, at a Conservative Party event in a Knightsbridge hotel, a young man in a suit tries to feed a cocktail sausage to a waitress while she’s handing round canapés, it has nothing to do with her being Bulgarian, or Romanian, or French. A hotel waiter’s nationality makes no difference to the fact that an hour of his time is worth a little over a pound more than the bottle of mineral water he’s expected to serve with a smile. Working 12-hour shifts, five days a week, covers little beyond rent and basic expenses in London, for foreign and British employees alike. I often worked alongside English fine art graduates, classically trained dancers from Scotland, Irish actors.

On one of my last shifts, at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, I served duck magret with glazed baby carrots to a man who had a picture of the queen as his phone’s wallpaper. The chair of a trade association, he went on at length about the great benefits of Britain expanding its markets towards China. He praised, without an ounce of irony or moral restraint, the Chinese business model of growth and profit at any cost. One Sunday afternoon in the mid-1990s, he said, he saw thousands of Chinese labourers carrying steel rods and wooden planks to build a new railway. He thought of Brits back home watching Manchester United, slacking, having a pint at the pub. And he asked himself: ‘What are we doing?’


  • 28 June 2016 at 11:29am
    Jonathan W says:
    Some unsavoury food for thought; what are we doing indeed.
    Serving bloated power lunches at the Ministry of Truth.
    Hope your are successful in your writing career.

  • 28 June 2016 at 9:36pm
    Mat Snow says:
    Superb piece which would resonate with many UK citizens slaving in operations like Sports Direct and who may have well have voted Brexit.

    Not having much money, it is easy for me to boycott the Ritz. It would certainly be a public service useful to consumers and workers of all nationalities if more such exploitative outfits were named and shamed to pressure them to treat their people not only legally but humanely.

  • 28 June 2016 at 10:58pm
    phil wallington says:
    What a great and incisive perspective this is. The neo-liberal world view with its sense of unlimited, unrestrained entitlement for "the winners" and its utter contempt for "the losers" must eventually unravel with dire consequences for us all. We are seeing the erosion of belief in political solutions in Britain, America and shortly, in Australia. New Zealand is due to hold a general election next year when, I suspect, the disconnection of politicians from people will be manifested in the results. Democracy is a great form of government as long as the collective wisdom of the people can be heard and acted upon. It seems now that nobody able to motivate and to effect change is listening Somehow we need a voice, or voices to be raised, to stand up for the dignity of labor and to renounce the blind belief in market forces, the benevolence of bankers and the greedy grasping of plutocrats. We also need that message to be heard and heeded. Without some drastic re-alignment of politics there must come a breaking point where "the have nots" revolt against the smug assumptions of "the haves". Why must we all be destined to repeat the mistakes of history without being able to absorb and enact its useful lessons?

  • 29 June 2016 at 3:04am
    John Cowan says:
    You could be working in the U.S. for £1.60 an hour plus tips (if you can get them).

  • 29 June 2016 at 1:17pm
    Sam64 says:
    Perhaps I think of it too often, perhaps I do because it's a strange book in some ways, but the observations in this piece reminded me of George Orwell's experiences of working in a up market hotel in Down and Out in London and Paris in the late 1920s: the very largely foreign staff, predominately Central, Eastern and Southern European workers, the long hours, the poor pay, the staff turnover, the otherworldliness of the customers.

    I was also reminded of being on a big anti austerity march not long after the Tory Liberal Coalition was formed in 2010. Going down Piccadilly a few anarchists broke away and lobbed bricks at the semi protected windows of the Ritz. Not many people joined in, most weren't that bothered either way, a minor side show. Looking up a saw a striking young work in Ritz uniform in a second or third floor window viewing what was going on. She had a broad grin on her face.

  • 29 June 2016 at 2:48pm
    Mat Snow says:
    The owners of the Ritz are that pair of creepy weirdoes, Sir David Barclay and Sir Frederick Barclay, who also own the Telegraph. Their bullying tactics in the Channel islands of Sark and Brecqhou over the last 20 years have earned them well-merited opprobrium, and they must surely be the most unsavoury set of twins to have blighted British public life since the Krays.

  • 30 June 2016 at 12:25pm
    Francis FitzGibbon says:
    This sort of systematic abuse goes on at least in part because of the weakening of trade unions by governments for decades. Individual workers can do little to protect themselves against rapacious employers. I wonder if the writer has tried to join a union? Brexit will deliver this country to the people who will drive down wages and take away the reduced protections that workers now have.

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