New research reveals the challenging experiences of young hospitality workers

Monday, 5 October 2020

Unique qualitative research led by members of the Newcastle Youth Studies Network has revealed the systematic inequalities and exploitation young hospitality workers are subjected to.

Busy bar workers

report containing initial findings of the ARC funded project Young Hospitality Workers in their Own Words: Working Conditions, Labouring Practices and Experiences of Hospitality Labour, highlights implications that industry bodies and authorities need to take into account to ensure workers are paid correctly and their legal rights are maintained.

This unique study involved interviews with 45 young hospitality workers in Melbourne and Newcastle and gives voice to their highly challenging, emotionally draining, precarious and underpaid experiences and the poorly understood hospitality labour industry.

Lead Investigator Dr David Farrugia says the qualitative approach of this research isn’t often employed when studying the hospitality industry but delivers important information that requires action.

“Data about the hospitality industry tends to be quantitative, relying on economic indicators or surveys that report on issues in the industry. Expressing the emotional, embodied and material aspects of hospitality work as we do in this report goes beyond representing workers as numerical figures on a spreadsheet or policy document. This is highly important as our research shows how the now well reported problems in hospitality such as wage theft are not exceptional or examples of bad apples, but the industry norm,” Farrugia said.

The most significant issue raised by young hospitality workers related to their employment conditions, including rates of pay and the informal or illegal working arrangements that participants reported as widespread throughout the sector.

As Dr Steven Threadgold puts it: “The young people we interviewed emphasised the disempowerment that workers feel in relation to their employers when negotiating their entitlements. In an overall precarious working environment, workers know that if they argue for their basic entitlements they will be let go and are sometimes made to feel as though they are undeserving of the wages and conditions in their award.”

Another common thread throughout the interviews was the scenario of new workers coming into the industry and being underpaid.

“They either do not know what the award is, or, go along with it at first with the expectation it will change. When it doesn’t change, they either accept it, look for another job, or leave the industry. Workers who remain in the industry for years, may be able to secure work at the award wage. Where the award wage should be a given, in many instances it is a reward, rather than a legal entitlement that workers should expect of their employers,” said Threadgold.

The research also focuses on the problematic working conditions of hospitality which extend beyond issues connected with remuneration.

Dr Julia Coffey says that “Hospitality work is often degrading, and the behaviour of customers and managers threatens workers’ personal dignity and at times their safety. As well as being poorly and often illegally paid, hospitality workers report high levels of disrespect and abuse. Customers expect to be treated with respect, or to be shown deference, but respect is rarely afforded to the hospitality worker.”

Some venues were described as supportive of their female workers and intolerant of sexual harassment, empowering workers to have disrespectful patrons removed from the venue. Other venues were less supportive and prioritised the potential revenue from customers.

“Regardless of the position taken, the experience of workers reflected informal approaches at the discretion of supervisors or employers,” Threadgold said.

Another important theme to emerge related to workers’ status as ‘unskilled’ and the wide variety of skills and competencies that workers described as necessary to good hospitality labour.

“While few of our participants held formal qualifications in hospitality work, workers resented being characterised as ‘unskilled’. Instead, hospitality labour is described as placing a wide and complex range of demands on workers, requiring them to develop skills in interaction management, efficient bodily movement, and time-management in high-pressure moments,” Farrugia said.

The study emphasises the significance of emotional labour, and the toll that this labour can take on hospitality workers trying to offer positive interactions amidst the fast pace of service in a venue.

“Workers are unable to express their own feelings authentically within a service interaction and must appear happy and good-natured despite the stresses imposed on them by the job. Workers also felt under pressure to appear sexually available, or at least present the appearance of being available for flirtatious interactions.”

“As such workers developed highly sophisticated relational and communicative skills – able to take orders, assess levels of intoxication in order to responsibly serve alcohol, interact with customers and co-workers, and remain composed when performing emotional labour,” said Coffey.

Participants described hospitality work as ‘taxing’ physically, mentally, and emotionally. The fast pace, high intensity and high energy required in hospitality service meant many had ‘burnt out’ from exhaustion.

“This disjuncture – between enormous emotional investment and poor financial returns – is a key contradiction for workers in this industry, who report making substantial personal investments in their labour and receiving little in return,” Threadgold said.

The data reveals that hospitality work, with its unsociable hours and workers interacting in close proximity, tended to produce strong friendships and bonds of intense solidarity amongst workers.

“For many hospitality workers, these solidarities mean that they feel connected to their workplaces in ways that go beyond their limited formal entitlements,” Coffey said.

While hospitality labour is precarious and poorly remunerated, the study found that it can be a source of belonging and pride for workers when the conditions are right.

“Hospitality labour can offer an intense social connection and process of personal identification when it is organised in a way that is respectful of workers whose relationships and labour are critical to the success of the venue,” Threadgold said.

The examples and narratives captured during this research highlight the gap between the poor working conditions and status of hospitality work and the complex interpersonal management skills ‘required for the job’. Farrugia says these ‘skills’ are usually a tacit requirement, rather than an overtly acknowledged or appreciated dimension of hospitality work.

“These ‘skills’ or attributes are critically important, however, for creating value in this industry. This is paradoxical, given that these highly-tuned skills in face-to-face interactions take place in precarious and often exploitative conditions. Our report shows that the implicit ‘skills’ demanded in hospitality work – the skills and capacities which are imperative in producing value in a post-industrial labour context – are often poorly acknowledged by management and broader society where working conditions are often precarious and exploitative.”

Summary of implications for these findings:

  • Relevant authorities should ensure that award wages are being paid much more strictly.
  • Informal employment arrangements mean that it is difficult for workers to ensure that other legal employment rights are maintained.
  • Workers need to feel safe in reporting wage issues and other workplace related problems.
  • Employers should encourage respectful relationships at work between staff and customers.
  • Workers should be fully supported by their employers to resist and report sexual harassment and it should be considered unacceptable in all hospitality venues. Employers should take an active role in addressing and responding to sexual harassment in their venues.
  • Industry bodies could strive towards changing the reputation of hospitality work as ‘unskilled’ which may influence public perception of the industry and change customer behaviour.

Download the report at

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