Tonight, Channel 4’s Dispatches investigation will lay bare the appalling conditions endured by staff at Premier Inn. You can imagine panic-stricken Premier Inn press officers in crisis mode, downing espresso after espresso while hammering out statements that pass off systemic abuses of workers as ‘isolated incidents’.
But they are not. Poverty pay and workhouse conditions are endemic to the British hotel industry.
The TUC has found that many hotel workers are being illegally paid below the national minimum wage. That’s because unpaid overtime is so common in the industry. For the 30% of workers in the industry earning no more than the minimum wage, any unpaid overtime at all would mean that their wage will fall below the legal minimum. And according to the government’s Labour Force Survey, 3 in 4 employees in the hotel industry who usually work overtime work at least 5 extra hours a week without pay, while nearly half work over 10 hours of unpaid overtime a week.
That’s underpayment on a massive scale. And it’s illegal.
Say you were an employee over 25 working the average number of paid hours a week (40) and earning the median full-time hourly wage of £8.80. If you worked an extra 10 hours a week as unpaid overtime, that would lower your wage to £7.04 per hour. That’s below the national minimum wage. And as more than half of hotel employees earn below £8.80 an hour, it is likely that many are being illegally underpaid.
And things are probably even worse for those hotel workers who live in accommodation provided by their employer. Government statistics on pay and hours don’t include those living in. Hotel workers living onsite are more vulnerable to be pressured into long hours and being paid starvation wages.
When they surveyed hotel staff in London, the union Unite found that pay is lower and hours are longer than government figures suggest. More than half of chefs surveyed said they worked after their official end time without extra pay, while more than 1 in 3 front of house staff were owed money for hours they had worked.
While most hotel employees get by on poverty wages, the same cannot be said for the executives who profit from their labour. The owners of Premier Inn, Whitbread, paid their board a total of £1.5 million in 2016. With their operating profit rising by 7.4% to £468 million in 2017, Premier Inn have no excuse for the Scrooge-like wages they pay their hotel staff.
Despite the overwork and low pay, hotel workers are beginning to stand up for themselves and each other – and to join unions. Last November, the country’s largest cleaning contractor in the hotel sector took all its staff off zero-hours contracts. Tonight’s expose of Premier Inn highlights union organising there – and the brave workers risking their jobs to speak out. Change is coming to hospitality.
So remember, when spokespeople for big hotel chains parrot statements denying responsibility for low wages and overwork – don’t believe them. Hotel employers have to change how they do business. They should start by recognising unions – and they should stop breaking national minimum wage law.