Put-upon at the Ritz
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?’