Shaun Hill: 'I felt that calling kitchen staff 'cheap foreign labour' was a bit insulting'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Many restaurant operators have had to make the difficult decision to temporarily close while they deal with staffing shortages, exacerbated by the the government's Track and Trace isolation policy.

Shaun Hill at The Walnut Tree Inn in Abergavenny is one such business owner. But when he told the BBC that he believed Brexit had driven away hospitality workers from the EU who "haven't felt terribly welcome", he found himself at odds with the Home Office.  

Whilst he was having to come to terms with a week and a half-long closure, he was faced with "a good rant about 'cheap foreign labour,'" with businesses encouraged to "invest in our domestic workforce" instead.

"But obviously they've not employed anyone from France or Switzerland recently," he laughed. "Because cheap doesn't enter into it." 

"I felt that calling kitchen staff 'cheap foreign labour' was a bit insulting - do they call nurses and care workers 'cheap foreign labour', I wonder?"

'there's been a condescension from politicians of every description towards the trade that we're in'

The chef's experience in the industry dates back almost five decades and for him, the government's response to the current staffing crisis in hospitality is telling of its attitude towards the sector as a whole.

"It's all part of the fact that there's been a condescension from politicians of every description towards the trade that we're in," he said. 

"There's always been a thought that people would come across and do the work and that it was not proper," he added, a line of thinking that applies at both ends of the political spectrum. 

"It's not a Conservative thing, the Labour party used to think the only real workers were miners and dockers - it's the idea that those who work in hospitality and retail are not really proper workers." 

As Shaun sees it, more responsibility should fall on the publicly-funded education system to promote the hospitality sector instead of assuming that anyone without a university degree is de-facto unskilled.

"I've been doing this since the battle of Hastings and largely when we started there were very few people with British passports in the kitchen or in the front of house - it's not really always been considered a great job to go into," he said, and while it has improved in increments since then, many still look down on it as a trade.

"I train people who come and work for me but I don't close the restaurant two days a week to go out and be a lecturer. That's not my job."

"It's a job for government that runs education out of general taxation. Tourism and the restaurant trade have brought in quite a bit of money in the past - a little bit spent on training up people for it wouldn't go amiss."

Take a price hike

As far as improving career prospects in the industry go, education is just one pillar - another is making sure the conditions are right for workers. Shaun is in the same predicament as the whole of the industry, in the knowledge that something has to give.

He explained: "The difficulty at the moment for our trade - and I hope it's temporary, but I don't know, is that a lot of costs have rocketed. Rates have gone down and VAT's gone down, but food costs are very high at the moment." 

"I hope that wages go up for cooks because they deserve it, but for each extra lump of money that goes onto places that are only just making a profit means you have to put the prices up." 

Unfortunately, he continued, even among his guests, "people have made a lot of money doing other things but have no real comprehension that they're not just paying for the ingredient and the frying oil, that the work and skill that goes into it costs money.

"You don't go to a dentist for some fillings and go, 'oh God, £200 for some amalgam, that was expensive'."

"You know you're going there in order to have skilled people do stuff - and I think that realisation will have to creep in." 

In it together

In the current climate, many restaurants are succumbing to the pressures of staff shortages. but, as far as Shaun is concerned, the industry shouldn't pile all of the responsibility on itself.

"I think more people than care to admit it are in the same boat," he said, because there is a sense of prevailing shame about being understaffed. 

"I don't think there's anything to be ashamed of in being short of crew. We all do our best and it's always difficult. This is a tough job," he said.

"Sometimes there's the thought of, 'well, if we double the pay,' but if we doubled the pay we'd have to raise the prices a lot."

Not mentally worn down by the burden of what he has to overcome, the chef said: "I've been doing it for so long. I've had a lot of teasing about the restaurant I had in Ludlow, The Merchant House, because I said that when I looked up in the mirror when I was shaving in the morning at least I knew I was fully staffed, because I worked on my own. That came back to haunt me a bit," he chuckled.

And while the whole industry pushes on to keep providing the highest quality of hospitality services, he said, "I will wander on hoping to retire as I have been for the last ten years," he smiled. "And hope for the best."

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 29th July 2021

Shaun Hill: 'I felt that calling kitchen staff 'cheap foreign labour' was a bit insulting'