“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

So Mark Twain said.

Late last week it came to my attention that a Scottish Trades Union Congress-supported group called Better Than Zero, had targeted a chef & restaurant whom I’m proud to call a friend.

Mark Greenaway runs his eponymous in central Edinburgh, to critical acclaim. He’s recently published an award winning book and holds 3 Rosettes from the AA (placing him in the top 10% of restaurants in the UK & Eire). Like any other business in Hospitality, he has the usual trials & tribulations of recruiting staff, but generally speaking everything is good.

That was until last week.

Better Than Zero claim in a statement to The Caterer:

We were sent a tip off about working practices at Mark Greenaway’s while we were gathering info on unpaid trial shifts. We know from several sources (past and present members of staff) that Mark Greenaway is using dozens of unpaid trial shifts per week to cover busy periods and use desperate young workers as a free cleaning service. This is completely unacceptable and unless we get a public commitment from him that he will pay all staff then we will be taking direct action at the restaurant in Edinburgh.

Then a journalist got involved, by the name of Dean Nelson. Formerly of The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, & now on a more freelance basis. Nelson tweet furiously on the subject (of which he clearly knows very little), but came up with the flimsiest of excuses as to why he’s jumped on the bandwagon:

In spite of me repeatedly offering to have a telephone conversation with Nelson, to explain what happens on these trails, he persisted with the tack of “it’s free labour”.

FYI Dean Nelson: There are ten 1 Michelin starred restaurants & one 2 star in Scotland, sadly Mark Greenaway doesn’t feature in that collection. So by definition isn’t Scotland’s top chef, Andrew Fairlie is. He also isn’t an ambassador in any professional capacity that I’m aware of. So in 1 tweet, you’ve managed to discredit any level of research you might have done, to justify this witch hunt, as utter poppycock.

If Nelson wants to talk about scrutiny, then let’s talk about Better Than Zero being led by a convicted criminal, or how Nelson didn’t seem to have many scruples when accepting a wage from an employer with a dubious tax arrangement. Bit different when the boot is on the other foot, isn’t it Dean?

Now as a former chef, & now as a recruiter, I fully know what happens on working trails & stages (which is clearly another area Nelson & Better Than Zero want to outlaw). I wholeheartedly endorse them as they are valuable parts of the selection & education/development processes. There are several reasons why, so let me explain, & possibly educate Dean Nelson & Better Than Zero:

  1. It isn’t free labour; The candidate will be in unfamiliar surroundings, with a brigade they don’t know, with a strange menu to them. Often they will be assigned another chef to work with them (assessing their competence, as Greenaway pointed out). So the employee won’t be working at full productivity & the candidate also won’t be working at full productivity. So two chefs may only have the productivity of 1.
  2. It gives both parties an insight into several aspects of the potential employment; the culture, fellow work mates, hours, business levels, can the candidate fit into the team (both in terms of work ethic/productivity/skills & personality), what does the potential employer offer in terms of the candidate’s development and so the list goes on.
  3. A stage; This is used as free labour & everybody will admit that. The difference with a stage is that in exchange for a candidate’s free labour, they will gain insight, recipes, development and an enhancement on their CV. It shows a level of dedication, which is certainly desirable in candidates looking for employment in restaurants such as Greenaway’s.
Why Greenaway?

This is the more troubling aspect of Better Than Zero’s action. Frankly their claim below is absurd:

We know from several sources (past and present members of staff) that Mark Greenaway is using dozens of unpaid trial shifts per week to cover busy periods

Right, so let’s put this into context. Greenaway’s restaurant is highly rated (in the top 10% with the AA) & in pursuit of a desirable Michelin star. So of course he’s going to put a growing reputation for quality on the line by using unproven & possibly inexperienced, at a 3 rosette level, staff. It’s just a ludicrous idea which would only be spouted by somebody has little experience of the hospitality sector.

It’s akin to a Kwik Fit technician working in the pits for Force India F1 team, that’s how stupid the idea is.

But if Greenaway IS using ‘dozens’ of trailists per week, as a recruiter I want to know where this steady stream of chefs are coming from. The factual reality is this; 1 in 4 job adverts for skilled workers in the UK, are chef positions. That is the shocking position that the UK hospitality sector is in.

What I really struggle with, is why Greenaway has been targeted. This is a common practice within in hospitality, but also in other sectors. Below is a screengrab of The Fat Duck’s stage policy, yes that’s a month minimum with no pay & you have to find your own accommodation.

fat duck stage

click for a larger image

So why Greenaway? There are bigger profile establishments who are using this practice in Edinburgh. The only plausible explanation that springs to mind is that Greenaway is an easy target. Should Better Than Zero have picked the fight with, say The Balmoral, there would be a simple & end game result. I just can’t think that Rocco Forte Hotel’s lawyers would stand around idly watching their reputation being tarnished unnecessarily.

Unpaid working trails & stages are a fact of life within hospitality, & even a QC, when asked if it was illegal was told, NO:

legality

However, Better Than Zero & their supporters want to take more than direct action with Greenaway’s establishment:

Free dining
A thought clearly echoed by their supporters:

free dine

free dinetripadvisor

Conclusion

There are plenty of anti social problems within hospitality, stages & unpaid working trails aren’t ones. They are perfectly legal & a highly valued part of a recruitment process. But a TUC supported group is bullying a small business without any evidence (that they’ve supplied so far), only the possible hearsay of a disgruntled employee.

It is highly unlikely that there are “dozens” of people queuing up to tell a tale to Better Than Zero, who quite frankly, should be engaging with people who actually have experienced & know what are working trails & stages are.

The bottom line with this, is that nobody is forced to do a stage or a working trail.

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