A new study by the University of Queensland (UQ), Serving up a Fair Go? Surfacing cultural issues in hospitality employment, found that all forms of harassment are rife throughout the hospitality industry and that the sector’s culture is in need of reassessment.

Associate Professor Richard Robinson from UQ Business School surveyed almost 400 hospitality employees in late 2021 and early 2022 to understand how their working experiences aligned with the five Fairwork Principles: contracts, pay, working conditions, management and representation.

The results from the survey showed the rampant verbal, emotional and sexual harassment of hospitality workers in every subsector of the industry.

“The results exposed deep cultural issues in the hospitality industry, with poor behaviours and practices that have become normalised and systemic,” Dr Robinson said.

“More than 60 per cent of respondents experienced sexual harassment, verbal and psychological bullying or racial abuse, while more than 70 per cent witnessed these behaviours.

“Customers were the main perpetrators, although 42 per cent of respondents said the abuse came from their managers or supervisors.”

Other concerns surrounded pay and employment contracts, with almost 20 per cent of respondents not receiving minimum pay rates or unsure whether they were paid fairly.

Harassment and mental health

In regards to the Fairwork Principle of working conditions, the study found hospitality workers were subject to various forms of harassment as well as behaviours unconducive to good mental health.

Men generally fared worse in their wellbeing, and women had less faith than men in customers and employers helping to improve their wellbeing. The evidence shows that workers become more resilient over time according to industry tenure, but that employment status does not consistently affect wellbeing factors.

Respondents reported an institutionalisation of abuse in the hospitality industry, with over 60 per cent experiencing verbal/psychological, bullying, or sexual harassment and over 70 per cent having witnessed such abuse.

Respondents shared stories of abuse, with examples including statements like “Being a female in the hospitality sector always comes with risks. Sexual harassment is so common from customers and in some cases from other employees” and “Customers are often verbally abusive and rude; some staff make inappropriate comments about things I wear and how I look etc.”

The study also noted that wellbeing has emerged as a significant issue during covid for the general population and was felt more keenly for those in the hospitality industry, which was deeply affected.

The majority of respondents said they felt burned out from their work (77 per cent) and that their employers will focus more on customer needs rather than employee safety (65 per cent).

Pay, promotion and management

Regarding pay, 12 per cent of the respondents said they were paid below minimum wage. Forty-four per cent reported not receiving pay entitlements for overtime or holiday loadings and over half reported no benefits beyond a basic wage. When it came to the possibility of pay rises, the majority of respondents cited that the only way to gain a pay rise was to become a manager.

In terms of managerial support, 48 per cent of respondents stated being treated with dignity and respect at work, while 36 per cent did not feel they were treated with respect. The use of supportive feedback from employers was almost split down the middle between those who received support from their employers (48 per cent) and those who didn’t (43 per cent).

Way forward

Professor Robinson’s study noted that the findings were not exclusive to Australia, with the same survey administered by colleagues to hospitality workers in New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland, Norway and Greece.

“The results were consistent, indicating systemic issues in hospitality worldwide,” he said.

The report noted that in the current labour market, with unemployment at a nearly 50-year record low, the balance of power has somewhat shifted towards workers. The report also confirms that many former hospitality workers have turned their back on the industry, seeking employment elsewhere. Ten percent of survey respondents alone have said it is unlikely they will return to hospitality work in the foreseeable future.

“With the unemployment rate at 3.4 per cent, demand for workers is high but supply is low – allowing some hospitality workers to negotiate higher wages and better conditions,” Robinson said.

“But unless all industry leaders and business owners address these cultural issues at their core, we’ll return to an imbalance of power when labour market dynamics change.”

The report makes several top-line recommendations on how the industry can begin to address these issues and change the culture of hospitality, including:

  • In negotiating contracts employers are advised to listen carefully to what flexibility means to their employees, as flexibility is currently defined on the terms and needs of employers rather than employees.
  • Develop mechanisms for employees to gain pay rises without promotion, for example for demonstrated performance and productivity which positively impacts unit profitability.
  • Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) should be mandatory in all hospitality workplaces, to ensure workers’ wellbeing is acknowledged and supported.
  • Managers and supervisors are the guardians of a positive organisational environment. Managers need to be aware that beyond operations they have a solemn duty of care to the employees they supervise and direct.

The report can be accessed here.

Vanessa Cavasinni

Vanessa Cavasinni is the managing editor of Australian Hotelier and Club Management, trade publications for the pub and club sectors respectively. Vanessa has been at the helm of Australian Hotelier since...

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