What a way to make a living | Aye, there’s the pub

After a temporary decline, the number of bar workers in the UK rose to 49,000 in the UK. In the first piece in the series What a way to make a living, Jozef Doyle gives an insight on the day to day experience of working in a pub.

An empty bar with brown wooden furniture
Photo: Marcin Wichary, Flickr

This was the scene at 4:10 pm on a weekday in the bar where I work: an elderly man with a cane had to wait in line behind a group of women from the local business estate and an indecisive family of six, which caused him to lash out at both the family for causing the delay, and me, for allowing them to do so. He made his displeasure clear by launching into a diatribe against people who take too long in queues, beginning slowly but building to a crescendo of verbal abuse directed at the mother and child still within earshot, as well as me, his captive audience.

At this point I was at the start of a seven-ish hour shift that would see me walk around 20,000 steps – I track this on my phone, masochistically – which equates to roughly eight miles. I completed this shift without taking a break – there was nobody to cover me, and calling a manager was reserved for emergencies – and without a colleague to help take food to customers, collect glasses or change empty casks of ale. I was running the pub, one frantic step at a time.

It wasn’t always like this. When I started working here, I was one of about ten members of staff, excluding the three managers who were always on hand if the queue became excessive or a problem arose in the kitchen. Since the managers when I first started had been working there for close to a decade, they knew the ebbs and flows of their clientele and could plan the rota accordingly, which meant I only ever worked alone at the quietest times on the slowest days. On busier days we would have up to six people behind the bar doing all the jobs that keep a pub looking and feeling professional. These managers often told me of how they got into the trade, how they always wanted to run the place more as a venue for the local community than as a cookie-cutter franchised pub (to the point that they grew their own pumpkins and gave them away for Halloween, and put on free festivals multiple times a year). These managers also self-defined as ‘properly Left’; there were Permaculture magazines next to the benches at the bar, and vegan options on the menu matched the ‘standard’ offerings despite the minuscule number of customers who asked for them. I was encouraged to call out sexist comments from customers, and so I had the confidence to tell many middle-aged men that, ‘drinks don’t have genders, there’s no such thing as a girly drink’. These quirks, alongside longer (paid) breaks than legally required, and a living wage for every staff member regardless of age, made those halcyon days seem almost unbelievable now.

A change in management later, and I quickly became the only remaining staff member from those earlier times. Everyone else either couldn’t stand the new regime, with longer shifts, more sporadic and unpredictably stocked menus and a painfully large price hike, or they were pushed out by a manager that drank his profits, shouted homophobic slurs at the football and prided himself on ‘telling it how it is’. I stayed, primarily out of financial necessity and preemptive guilt – I knew the place better than anyone at that point, and was doing so many hours that the place would, I was certain, collapse if I shrugged it off and walked away. So I suffered the cut in pay and the removal of those breaks that are my legal right. I weathered the complaints from the regulars, who became less regular as the pub began to seem, as one ex-customer said, ‘like an abandoned EDL bar’. 

I held on longer than those managers did, since their vision for the pub led to their being shuffled off by the regional controller who dealt in spreadsheets and monthly balance statements rather than individual publicans and staff members. The few times I met this man – every member of ‘upper management’ has been a man, in my experience – he seemed to have a quota of time for small talk that was measured down to the millisecond. He had the power to decide the price of a pint, the number of gins we could stock, even the selection of snacks we could serve, all without knowing where our toilets were. This manager soon moved on, and so a new manager was found to run the pub- the one for which I work today.

News of new management spread quickly and the customers from the old days slowly returned, but I never got my breaks back. This new manager has made it clear that this business venture is part of a two-year-plan; he runs another pub and hopes to make enough cash in those two years from these two sites to finish building a homestead in Poland, with acres of land and multiple buildings. And he’s well on his way; with the skeleton crew he runs at both pubs here, at the end of this year I wouldn’t be surprised if the pub has a new manager again. I have to force myself away from these thoughts as I’m chastised for not collecting all the glasses quickly enough as 11:30 pm rolls around on that weekday shift.

Any mention of there being too much work, or not enough staff, or the novel problem of not being able to clean effectively since no cleaning equipment has been restocked for the last fortnight, is met with either a heavy handed implication of laziness on the staff’s part or a dismissal of the issue outright.

These difficulties are echoed by the few staff I interact with on the busiest days, when they’re deemed necessary. We are all run ragged, aching and exhausted by the end of those shifts. We complain about our backs hurting, about being ill (but not ill enough to call in sick – we can’t afford that, since we don’t get more than statutory sick pay) and about the rudeness of some customers who don’t see us as people. I often wonder if we’re all thinking about the systemic causes of these individual symptoms, and what systemic solutions could be found.

Speaking with these staff members confidentially, they all seem to believe that to rock the boat too much would spell personal and financial disaster – they have experienced the difficulty in securing ‘casual’ work with shifts that equate to a livable wage. Mentions of unionisation have, for all but one colleague (who happens to be writing his dissertation on the perceived benefits of unionisation among working-class employees) fall on wary, if not deaf ears. Unionisation among some colleagues – particularly the older members – seems to be synonymous with the sort of laziness our manager alludes to when a job isn’t done to his satisfaction; hiding behind a union is almost an admission of guilt. If we work hard enough to please the boss, why would we need protection? 

When pressed, or given examples of how unions are responsible for many of the things we now rely on to survive in this job, many resort to the excuse I can’t argue with: they’re simply too exhausted to research it.

Younger staff members have a somewhat different reason for avoiding discussions of unions, in that they believe them to be vestiges of the past – of Thatcher and miners, of labourers and breadlines and black and white photographs shown on CRT televisions. One 18-year-old, when asked about her thoughts on unions at work, asked if they were a part of Unitemps, a ‘temporary staffing service’ run by the university. My explanation seemed to do little to spark interest, though this conversation was happening between serving a maddening crowd on a Friday afternoon where every staff member’s attention was being pulled in a dozen directions at once. 

Besides furtive mumbles and meaningful glances, we rarely find the time or energy to complain about our manager, our workplace or our pay. Most of us simply want to be done with the shift we find ourselves facing as peaceably as possible. So we each resign ourselves to coping mechanisms – drinking, chain-smoking, endlessly applying to LinkedIn jobs that seem as much a step up as an escape route – and try to remain as affable as possible for the regulars at the bar.



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