I work at a Wetherspoons in grim conditions – and Tim Martin’s clueless Brexit bleating is driving me mad

The pub chain’s poorly treated staff are expected to distribute a political outlook that puts our life chances at risk

Richard Penderel
Wednesday 23 January 2019 12:40
Wetherspoons will replace champagne with British sparkling wines as Brexit approaches

Brexit, according to the latest edition of Wetherspoon News, is a route to “democracy and free trade”, to “equal freedom and prosperity”.

Following an appraisal of the implications of a no-deal Brexit, JD Wetherspoon founder Tim Martin has informed attentive Fosters drinkers across the country that Britain crashing out of the EU would be no greater trouble than his company’s triumphant substitution of German Jägermeister with English Strika. Any other spin, he claims, is “just another pro-EU shaggy dog story” desperately cobbled together by a “metropolitan elite”. You’re even invited to his once-in-a-lifetime countrywide Brexit tour were any of your doubts to persist.

Cards on the table. I’m a left-wing, London-based Remainer. I’m presumably a self-elected member of this “metropolitan elite” in Martin’s eyes. But that is rather hard to square with the poverty wages he pays me to work the bar at one of his central London pubs.

Like a lot of hospitality jobs, work at Wetherspoons is, in my opinion, underpaid and undervalued. It’s an intense and stressful job – preparing drinks and food and unclogging toilets for hours on end. Our breaks are short and unpaid. Zero-hour contracts are open to abuse by managers who have no obligation to give us enough work to survive on. Being sick means either working through the flu or losing a day’s pay and, once a set number of “trigger” days is hit, perhaps your job too.

We work unsocial hours, rarely seeing friends, but are continuously confronted with drunk, abusive and sometimes violent customers who’ll mindlessly dehumanise you into a mechanical pint pourer. You might say this is just the price you pay for working in a pub, and I am grateful to have a job of any sort, but it is also, I think, a depressing vision of how crude, mercantile Brexiteers like Martin see the world.

In October, two Wetherspoon outlets in Brighton joined a series of hospitality strikes in demand of union recognition and a £10 hourly wage. It’s a fight that needs expanding across the country. But the choice most employees see is to put up with the conditions or leave; and with staff turnover so absurdly high, most seem to go for the latter.

It appears Wetherspoons has been doing rather well out of our working conditions. Last year the company pulled in £89m in pre-tax profits; and Martin himself has accrued a tidy estimated net wealth of almost £500m. As a full-time bar associate in central London I might put through £4,000 in weekly sales – and receive less than a tenth of that in my wages. The irony is that if Brexit leads to rising staff costs, as it well might, then the Martin model looks fragile. Today he revealed he expects profits to fall despite rising sales.

While I work long hours for meagre rewards, I believe Tim Martin is exploiting his position at the head of a huge high-profile company to advocate for a Brexit which threatens to make working conditions worse, never mind the evidence that the Brexit debate has already led to a surge in racist and queerphobic hate crimes.

The financial crisis and a Conservative government have combined to slash away at our public services. I fear that the kind of no-deal Brexit my boss advocates promises to accelerate austerity to rates we might have previously deluded ourselves were unthinkable.

There is a conspicuous absence from Martin’s propaganda of the implications for the migrant workers who keep his company running. With Tories celebrating the end of free movement, and Labour failing to stand up for it, it’s essentially guaranteed that any Brexit will lead to the greatest expansion of border controls in generations.

A large proportion of Wetherspoons’ 30,000+ staff are EU nationals and yet Martin himself appears to be utterly incoherent on the issue of migrant workers’ rights. In one breath, he salutes EU citizens’ contributions to the UK’s social, cultural and economic life, and in the next he pontificates in favour of an Australia-style “points system” that prioritises the kind of “skilled” and “professional” work that, if enacted, would attack the right of his own employees to even work here.

It is nothing short of perverse that it’s the organisation’s bar associates – the lowest-paid and most migrant-heavy layer of the workforce – who are responsible for distributing Martin’s politics in pubs up and down the country. Through content in the magazine, on leaflets and even on beer mats, we are essentially instructed to propagandise for a policy that promises to make our livelihoods more precarious.

Brexit has always been driven by the central xenophobic lie that blames the decline of living standards on foreign workers. Yet when you contrast the extreme wealth of Wetherspoon’s shareholders with what I see as poverty wages granted to all its employees, it’s all too clear in my mind that it’s not migrants who drive down wages, it’s exploitative bosses.

I’m opposed to Brexit because I’ve no time for racist lies or those willing to triangulate around them. Low-paid hourly workers depend on our public services more than anyone else in society, but ending freedom of movement will not bring one single child out of poverty.

That’s to say nothing of the millions of EU nationals – including thousands of my fellow workers – who face uncertainty, at best, and deportation at worst. And there’s the theft of the rights we all face, to live and study and love and work in a world far greater than the tiny patch of land into which we were born.

I want a society that’s run in the interests of the people who keep it running – and that’s as true for Wetherspoons as for the country at large. We need all employers to be mandated to pay a real living wage, we need workplace democracy, and we need a tax system which targets those who can best afford it – like Tim Martin – to fund health, education and childcare. It is utterly maddening that my boss uses his workers to spread a parade of facile soundbites that go against all of this to a captive audience of Wetherspoons drinkers.

The author has written this article under a pseudonym

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