Over the last week, hospitality workers around Australia have asked each other in lowered voices: “Have you read that article?”
They were referring to a now-notorious write-up in the Sydney Morning Herald, based on opinions shared by hospitality bosses Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham. These self-styled “hospitality gurus” believe that hospitality workers are nothing but “little whining fucking cunts,” a view they expounded at length in an episode of their podcast The Fat, in conversation with celebrity chef, Shannon Martinez.
Smyth and Graham are co-owners of New South Wales (NSW) hospitality business Mary’s Group. They seem to believe this gives them the authority to comment on the experiences of hospitality workers everywhere. Predictably, their outlandish tirade generated a nation-wide backlash. And equally predictably, the pair have issued a flaccid “apology” via their company website.
We are hospitality workers. And here’s why we don’t accept Smyth and Graham’s apology.
In their now-fabled podcast episode, Smyth declared that “the hospitality industry needs an amendment in terms of relationships between employers and employees that is more based on equity and a fair outcome.” We couldn’t agree more. But we differ on how a “fair outcome” might be achieved.
To begin with, it’s unfortunate that Smyth and Graham followed this fine sentiment with an attempt to gaslight victims of workplace abuse. Before we could stop to exclaim “did-they-just-call-their-workers-cunts?” the pair started talking about “historical abuse” in the industry, an unsubtle attempt to preemptively disparage the obvious rejoinders to their tirade.
Even in their “apology,” Smyth and Graham kept trying to palm off abuse of workers to a mythical “Old Hospitality” industry, supposedly now long extinct. They claim that hospitality workers no longer suffer abuse at the hands of their bosses. By doing so, the duo just reveal how unbelievably out of touch they’ve become.
In a 2017 survey conducted by the hospitality union, Hospo Voice, 89 percent of hospitality workers reported having felt “unsafe, uncomfortable or at risk” in their workplace. The hospitality industry isn’t quite the polished gem these business owners seem to think they’ve so generously sculpted.
Smyth and Graham appear to think that, simply because they did their time suffering at the hands of employers earlier in their own careers, they’ve now earned the authority to determine what genuine abuse looks like. Worse still, they pretend that their experience as well-to-do inner-city business owners somehow gives them a real insight into life on the proverbial factory floor.
Naturally, Smyth and Graham were quick to add that their staff “are the reason that Mary’s has come to be what it is … we love them all deeply.” But, in an industry plagued with systematic abuse, erasing the experiences of workers is a bizarre way to communicate respect, let alone love.
Balancing Work, Life, Rent, and Bills
Smyth and Graham were in damage-control mode during their interview with Hack, where they declared themselves “champions of work/life balance” — a concept they previously damned as “ …one of the most dangerous terms young people have been introduced to.”
But despite their backtracking, they are still quick to demonize anyone who doesn’t conform to their own arbitrary standards. Of course Graham, Smyth, and Martinez feel satisfied with the fifty plus hours they work — after all, they have a choice.
And anyway, because their pockets are lined with other people’s labor, bosses can make more in fifty hours than most hospo workers would in a month. Perhaps that’s why they can’t grasp the simple point that workers might not leave with the same sense of fulfillment at the end of each day.
Smyth and Graham show their inability to put themselves in the shoes of their employees, especially when they lecture staff about how they should use their leisure time. Smyth has simple advice for workers feeling exhausted:
On your days off, just actually put your fucking phone down. Don’t respond to the message on the WhatsApp group, and don’t check your emails. Stay off Instagram. Actually treat your two days like you’re on holiday.
As they would have it, the main barrier to a decent work/life balance is the humble mobile phone. No doubt the suggestion evoked a wistful smile from workers who would love to treat two consecutive days off “like a holiday.”
However, a recent Hospo Voice report suggests a very different reality:
When jobs are founded on uncertainty and precarity, and where wage theft is endemic, this leaves little room for workers to speak out as their hours are, once again, chopped and changed without care or consultation.
This is the unstable reality for the workers in a highly casualized and transient industry. In other words, not replying to a last-minute request that you fill a shift is a luxury for those who aren’t underemployed and perpetually looking for income. Or worse, it can put you at risk of being blackballed at a time where shifts are scarce.
A Work Ethic Won’t Pay the Bills (or Keep You Safe)
In the real world, workers are forced to compromise their health in order to feed themselves and keep their bosses happy. Thanks to wage theft and precarity, when the pandemic hit, 47 percent of workers surveyed by Hospo Voice reported that they lacked sufficient savings to cover a month’s basic expenses.
By ridiculing the wish of employees for better work/life balance, Smyth and Graham are perpetuating a culture that puts the profits of the employer before the workers’ own health, mental and physical. That’s why they demonized workers who look out for themselves as “soft” or not “real hospitality.”
This culture is as prevalent as it is toxic, and its roots lie in insecurity and precariousness. As Hospo Voice has reported:
The insecure jobs that dominate the hospitality industry have also fostered a working environment where harassment and chronic stress plague its workforce. For workers with precarious working arrangements who are looking to lock in their next shift, speaking out against sexual harassment and job-induced anxiety can get in the way of their next pay cheque and ultimately cost them their livelihoods. And, when presented with the ultimatum of paying the bills or insisting on a safe and respectful workplace, it is often safety and respect that are sacrificed.
The dichotomy between a good work ethic and workplace respect is not an inevitable fact of life — on the contrary, it’s imposed by bosses who value their own bottom line over safe, respectful work conditions.
This is why employers like Smyth and Graham are wolves in sheep’s clothing. From the comfort of their own circles, they share their own horror stories of days gone by and present themselves as if they were just like their workers.
But the result is to belittle and mock anyone who doesn’t fit into their definition of a “real hospo” worker. It’s nothing but the good-cop act that directly precedes a request to work late or accept a double shift.
The Silver Lining
The outburst from these business owners, and the extremity of their claims, is a knee-jerk reaction to a workforce that has started to demand actual respect and fairness. This is why Smyth likes to palm off the backlash as a manifestation of “cancel culture” — after all, his diatribe set out to preserve authoritarian power structures in the industry that frustrate workers’ efforts to organize. And it’s also why Smyth and Graham claim that staff, managers and members of the community alike share their complaints about the younger generation, who have begun agitating to defend their rights.
As hospitality workers, we are always told, “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” We aren’t the ones doing the biting. But we are feeding them, with our own hands. And we’re beginning to realize the power that gives us.
Workers everywhere have spent the last week in social-media hospitality groups and other union spaces, rejecting the claims that we’re entitled. No, we’re simply aware of our rights. They accuse us of whining, but we know we are simply using our collective power and amplifying our voices.
And for every Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham leveling abuse at us, there are many more hospo workers joining a real movement that can generate meaningful change.