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Zero-star reviews: FLEX’s latest report highlights systemic labour abuses experienced by workers in the hospitality sector in the UK

July 13, 2021

I have suffered chemical abrasion on the hands, inhalation of toxic fumes such as phosphoric acid, falls, bruises and injuries due to lack of safety materials, weeks of working six days and 13 uninterrupted hours due to “work circumstances”. This period has been, without any doubt, the worst work and physical experience of my entire life. 

Interview, Spanish Kitchen/Catering Assistant, 17 May 2019

Today FLEX publishes a new report on the experiences of workers in the UK hospitality sector. “To help workers, I would tell the Government to…” Participatory Research with Workers in the UK Hospitality Sector is the second in a series of working papers on the experiences and drivers of labour abuse and exploitation in three understudied low-paid sectors of the economy: cleaning, hospitality and the app-based courier sector. It highlights key workplace issues in the hospitality sector and the factors that increase the risk of workers experiencing employment rights violations. The first working paper in the series, on the cleaning sector, was published in January and is available here.

This working paper series uses a feminist participatory action research approach which involves workers at every stage of the research process, from design to data collection and analysis. This participatory methodology has enabled workers to shape the research findings and recommendations, including workers who are at high-risk of exploitation but less frequently represented in policy research, such as undocumented migrants, people who do not speak English, and those who work long and unsociable hours. By involving workers from some of the most at-risk groups, this report brings the voices of people with lived experience to the forefront and includes their perspectives in the policymaking process.


Our research found hospitality to be a high-risk sector for labour abuse and exploitation, with workers who responded to our survey* reporting the following:

  • Frequent issues with pay: 62% experienced issues with pay, such as unpaid work (39%), not being paid on time (18%) and not being paid at all (17%). A large proportion also faced deductions related to uniform or equipment costs (19%) and 32% of participants were earning below the minimum wage for their age group, based on self-reported hourly wages.
  • Inability to take time off ill: 60% of the respondents felt they could not always take time off due to illness, including 43% who only felt able to do so some of the time, and 17% who felt they were never able to take sick leave. This is due mainly to lack of access to sick pay (35% had no sick pay entitlements) and fear of losing work (44% said they had been afraid of losing work or having their hours reduced if they called in sick).
  • Dangerous working conditions: 94% of survey respondents had experienced health issues directly resulting from their work, while 38% described being required to work in ways that felt dangerous or unsafe. Moreover, the vast majority of respondents reported having experienced work-related mental health issues and illnesses (74%).
  • Work-related violence: Over 63% reported experiencing abusive behaviour linked to their race, ethnicity, and nationality. This included verbal abuse linked to race, ethnicity, or nationality (41%); racist language and jokes (37%); feeling unwelcome or excluded because of race, ethnicity or nationality (36%); and being told to ‘go back home’ (29%). As many as 43% had been told to speak only English at work, which is particularly problematic for those facing a language barrier. In addition to abuse related to race, we found research participants experienced high levels of gender-based abuse, with 37% of research participants having experienced sexual harassment at work.
  • Impact of Covid-19: Our data collection overlapped with the early phase of the Covid pandemic, allowing us to assess the initial impact it had on workers in the sector. Issues experienced by participants included financial difficulties, such as not being able to pay rent or bills; being given no work or, conversely, being given more work without additional pay; being made redundant instead of being put on furlough; having furlough pay miscalculated; and struggling to access government support due to immigration status, including pre-settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme.

We also found that the likelihood of workers experiencing the above issues was impacted by factors including:

  • Employment status, with the insecurity associated with the widespread use of zero-hours contracts in the sector meaning that workers have little protection against loss of income, as their hours can be easily cut. This reduces workers’ ability to push back against or report exploitative practices for fear of losing work.
  • Outsourcing, often contributing to unrealistic workloads and downward pressure on wages and conditions as contractors compete for work by offering the lowest price and overpromising on the service they can deliver. This was particularly prominent in the hotel subsector, impacting Room Attendants who must work unpaid to meet high productivity targets or else risk losing their job.
  • Age, specifically youth, with workers aged 16-24 overrepresented in the hospitality workforce. Young workers feel less able to push back against poor treatment, especially by older managers, because of their lack of experience and limited labour market options, and may be less likely to do so if they perceive their role as temporary, for example if working alongside their studies. Young survey respondents reported higher levels of fear of retaliation for taking time off sick, refusing to do things that are not part of their job, or turning down shifts.
  • Brexit-related vulnerability for EEA workers, with workers experiencing insecurity due to the changes to their immigration status and uncertainty about the future. Research participants were unsure of the impact Brexit could have on them due to lack of information about the new immigration process and future entitlements.
  • Barriers to accessing support, such as language barriers, lack of knowledge about rights and where to get help means that workers are more vulnerable to labour abuses. Low unionisation rates in the sector means that workers are less able to fight for better pay and terms and conditions through union support and campaigning.

Rising from the ashes: building the sector back better 

The findings from our research show the scope and nature of the issues workers in hospitality are experiencing. Many of our research participants described hospitality as a sector broken beyond repair, urging people to “get out while they can”, and feeling as though there are too many problems to fix.

As a result of the pandemic, many have already left the sector. Repeated shutdowns have led to mass redundancies, and workers who have succeeded in finding alternative employment are reluctant to return. Hospitality businesses across the country are now struggling to recruit workers back into jobs offering low pay, long hours, and insecurity. As the sector continues to reopen, employers should consider how they can build back better after Covid, establishing higher standards and offering better contracts and decent terms and conditions to attract workers back into their old jobs. Hospitality employers in the US, who are similarly struggling to fill vacancies post-Covid, are already increasing wages and providing better benefits in the hope of hiring and, crucially, retaining more staff.

Sustainable changes to the sector will also require government action. Concrete, meaningful steps are needed, like the proactive enforcement of labour standards, especially those related to pay, workplace violence and other health and safety matters; ensuring access to adequate sick pay; mitigating the vulnerabilities created by insecure immigration and employment statuses; and introducing regulations to limit the abuse of flexible contracts and the negative impacts of outsourcing on workers. Without regulation and enforcement, good employers will be undercut by those willing to skirt the rules and abuse workers’ vulnerabilities. Workers involved in the research called for the government to:

Put a stop to zero-hours contracts, [improve] the pay in the sector, [and provide] additional help for people who struggle with mental health.

Survey response, UK Chef

They should inspect housekeeping work, many abuses are committed in all hotels, there’s a lot of workload pressure and they do not pay for hours but for rooms that we clean and its mostly agencies that carry it.

Survey response, Peruvian Room Attendant

It is crucial that the solutions taken forward to address labour abuses and risk of exploitation in hospitality are informed by those most affected by them. Workers have a wealth of knowledge and insight about the factors contributing to and driving labour exploitation in the hospitality sector, and we hope that by throwing light on these matters we will start to see meaningful change on the ground.

Read the full report here.

This project is supported by Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

* The survey ran in five languages (English, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish) and reached 115 participants from 26 different nationality groups. Migrants accounted for 96% of respondents.