Inside Track by Peter Martin
Caution is usually recommended before entering any debate on immigration. But the increasing dependence of the hospitality industry, particularly in our major towns and cities, on migrant labour makes it a topic too vital to avoid. However, there’s a question. Aren’t the real issues underlying the debate still more to with the fundamentals of the business, like service and consumer experience, than ethnicity? Last week, the British Hospitality Association (BHA) revealed the results of a survey showing that 70% of London’s 300,000 hospitality workers were now migrants and 80% of employees in the capital’s top 25 hotels came from abroad. Much of that labour force has come from the 10 newest EU member states, and principally Poland, since their accession two years ago. It prompted BHA’s chief executive Bob Cotton to call for a temporary ban on migrant workers from Romania and Bulgaria when they join the EU next year. Cotton, usually with a finger on the wider political pulse, said the industry needed to pause to assess the situation, particularly in the light of rising unemployment figures in the UK. There are no immediate signs that recruitment from eastern Europe is going to slow, with this weekend’s Sunday Telegraph reporting on a human resources team from Whitbread scouring Romania for cooks and Little Chef with a similar operation in Poland. Imported labour has become vital to the British eating and drinking out market. The reasons are well rehearsed. Partly it is down to cost. Hospitality is labour intensive, and migrant workers are relatively cheap. But, the industry also remains largely unable to attract sufficient indigenous workers, with pay, conditions, career prospects and industry image (not to mention British attitudes) all playing a part in that. But if the country’s restaurants, bars, pubs and fast food joints are going to be run increasingly by foreign teams, what impact is that going to have on the customers and their experience? Language, culture and simple social interaction are becoming real issues, particularly in London It’s a well-established game for French, Italian, Indian and Chinese waiters not to understand English, or appear not to – it’s almost part of the experience in some restaurants. But these days buying a hotdog or pizza can be a communication marathon. I expect not to be understood out of the UK, even in the United States, but in London? This is not actually an immigration issue. It’s more fundamental than that. It’s about employers training and preparing their people to go out and provide the best consumer experience. There may be different issues in preparing eastern Europeans than training British-born recruits, but the end result needs to be the same. There is also a sense that current employment trends are mainly a reaction to immediate circumstances and little thought has been given to their long-term impact. This week a senior restaurant chain executive was lamenting the lack of high quality middle and senior management developing in the sector. What’s causing that? Are current recruitment trends going to help or merely exacerbate that condition? The BHA’s Bob Cotton says it might be time to pause for reassessment. He may be right, but not just to look at the narrow issue of immigrant workers. Vital though that is, surely it needs to be put in the wider context of what this industry wants and expects to deliver for its increasingly demanding customers and for securing the longer term sustainability of its businesses? Peter Martin is co-founder of M&C Report, and founder of the Peach Factory