‘Hospitality’ is a broad church but your celebrity chefs have become media fixtures and their sob stories are now part of the surround-sound. Yet this is an industry marked by low pay, exploitation, long and inhospitable hours, and bullying. Much of this is ignored as all of the food writers are fully ’embedded’ with the chefs in a totally unhealthy relationship. It’s significant that it was The Times that broke the story about Tom Kitchin’s behaviour in his Edinburgh restaurant (‘Shaken staff lift lid on ‘hell’ Kitchin‘): “Twelve former employees of the Kitchin Group have told The Times of how they experienced sexual harassment across the restaurants or were abused, denied food, water, lavatory breaks or proper rest during shifts of up to 18 hours. Many claim to have lost significant amounts of weight and suffered mental health problems.”
Paul Lewis revealed that Kitchin took his own staff’s tips: “Tom Kitchin paid himself and his wife Michaela up to £700 a month each from gratuities earned by the front of house employees at the Scran & Scallie, a gastropub. Another director was allegedly allocated a monthly payment of up to £2,000 between 2015 and 2020.”
This isn’t isolated in the industry which remains resolutely immune to unionisation and workers’ rights. I have total solidarity with staff facing job cuts and businesses facing the nightmare scenario of government pronouncements saying “don’t go out” with no financial support. But Stephen Jardine called the hospitality industry “the glue that holds society together” and the trade is being elevated to a status that is bizarre.
The problem points to a wider issue in our understanding of the crisis.
Individual industries and sectors all wail about their own situation as if they operate in complete isolation. Each speaks of their own unique problems and how they are suffering terribly. Here’s the news: we all are. There is no separation between ‘public health’ and ‘business’. It’s as if we have forgotten entirely that we have collective interest at all. It’s as if Thatcher’s mantra that “there is no such thing as society” has come to roost forty years on.
The public narrative is that the (Scottish) government is out to ‘get’ the hospitality industry and that special exemption and funding should be endlessly carved out for them. But they have been deified above all other industries because a) they have media profile and b) the journalists frequent their restaurants. But how many of the general public have the resources for fine dining in the pandemic? The hospitality industry is a broad term and there’s no doubt that small independent businesses are suffering far and beyond the big chains, but if we are going to hear from the sector let’s hear from the workers and the staff often paid low wages for long hours, not just the celebrity chefs. It’s a very First World problem to not be able to eat out at a restaurant. Fine dining has been elevated to a media obsession at the same time as foodbank use has sky-rocketed. This is a media framing and a story we tell ourselves about our society that is at odds with reality.
There are also other ‘sectors’ and communities this narrative drowns out. What about single parents, older people, shop-workers, the social workers mopping up the chaos that’s going on behind the scenes, the bin workers, the staff of chemists and post offices, the people administering the vaccination at an astonishing rate up and down the country? To reprise an old Tory phrase “we’re all in this together” and the sort of special pleading from individual sectors goes against this understanding.
Beyond this the whole understanding of how we respond to crisis mirrors our other actions. As with the climate emergency, any actions must be the most minimal and cautious as possible, almost as if there was no real emergency at all. At all costs nothing must be done which impings on business interests or in any way impinge on western lifestyle which has at its core certain sacrosanct activities (for some). The most essential of these are: the ability to fly anywhere at very low cost at any time you chose; access to cheap alcohol.
There’s a sort of narcissism in all of this. We have all been reduced to understanding the world purely in our own terms. This hyper-individualism fuels both the anti-vaccine movement and the new phenomenon we can call Libertarian Authoritarianism. The 99 Tory MPs who rejected plans for vaccine certificates despite surging infections and personal lobbying by the prime minister will all be enthusiastic supporters of the raft of repressive measures coming down the line.
Andrea Leadsom, former leader of the House of Commons, said: “This is a slippery slope down which I do not want to slip,” adding that it was “truly appalling” to justify the measures by saying they were less authoritarian than those in other countries. Another former minister, Tim Loughton said: “We cannot head for the hills with kneejerk emergency measures every time a new variant comes along.” Miriam Cates MP claimed there had been “permanent change to the understanding of what liberty is”. Her colleague Anthony Mangnall urged: “We cannot continue to terrify people.”
Yet despite their fine rhetoric none of these civil rights warriors will be opposing the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill which effectively criminalises peaceful protest in Britain and allows people to be jailed for 51 weeks for protesting. The hypocrisy of these zealots is astonishing. They want to protect business as usual at all costs in a public health emergency the likes of which we have never seen before, yet will turn a blind eye as their own government initiates legislation more suited to a dictatorship.
Under the new legislation – with amendments rushed through to avoid scrutiny – police powers are hugely enhanced and our civil liberties are under fundamental attack. George Monbiot has described some of the results:
“It would become a criminal offence to obstruct in any way major transport works from being carried out, again with a maximum sentence of 51 weeks. This looks like an attempt to end meaningful protest against road-building and airport expansion. Other amendments would greatly expand police stop and search powers. The police would be entitled to stop and search people or vehicles if they suspect they might be carrying any article that could be used in the newly prohibited protests, presumably including placards, flyers and banners. Other new powers would grant police the right to stop and search people without suspicion if they believe that protest will occur “in that area”. Anyone who resists being searched could be imprisoned for – you guessed it – up to 51 weeks.”
“Perhaps most outrageously, the amendments contain new powers to ban named people from protesting. The grounds are extraordinary, in a nation that claims to be democratic. We can be banned if we have previously committed “protest-related offences”. Thanks to the draconian measures in the rest of the bill – many of which pre-date these amendments – it will now be difficult to attend a protest without committing an offence. Or we can be banned if we have attended or “contributed to” a protest that was “likely to result in serious disruption”. Serious disruption, as the bill stands, could mean almost anything, including being noisy. If you post something on social media that encourages people to turn up, you could find yourself on the list. Anyone subject to one of these orders, like a paroled prisoner, might be required to present themselves to the authorities at “particular times on particular days”. You can also be banned from associating with particular people or “using the internet to facilitate or encourage” a “protest-related offence”.
So as we hear the whines from celebrity chefs and marvel at the Conservatives’ principled stand against vaccine passports let us remember that it was this government that took your rights away under the cover of the pandemic.