Editor’s note: This semester, The Saint conducted a substantial two-month investigation into the culture of exploitation and harassment in St Andrews’ hospitality industry. Our article includes quotes from eight student sources, some of whom were willing to be named. However, to protect these sources’ identities and act in fairness to both sides, we have decided to anonymise all individuals and establishments.
“I cried pretty much on every shift, sometimes two or three occasions a night,” Jessica said. “I’m not a person who gives up really easily, but at that point I just thought it was time to leave. One night, I just burst into tears. I said I can’t do this anymore, and I’m leaving.”
Jessica spent a year working at a prominent restaurant/bar in St Andrews. During this period, she experienced sexual harassment from customers and alleges her managers took no action despite being aware of the inappropriate behaviour.
He snapped at me that I was in the way and shoved me. I’m talking a 35-year-old man, shoving me. And I’m quite small. I was so flabbergasted by that.
Jessica is not alone in feeling mistreated. The following testimonies are based on interviews with waitstaff, hostesses, and bartenders around St Andrews. They signify a pattern of worker exploitation that targets, in particular, young female students working part-time.
In the UK, sexual harassment is defined as unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which “violates your dignity, makes you feel intimidated, degraded, or humiliated, or creates a hostile or offensive environment.” This can include sexual comments or jokes.
Another student, Kate, worked at the same restaurant/bar as Jessica for over a year.
“Working at a bar, you kind of expect a certain degree of harassment,” she said. “But I mean, even if that’s what I expect, I’m never going to take any of it. I have been slapped on the ass, told inappropriate things, and spoken to in inappropriate ways. There was an instance where [my manager] told me to get over it one day, which really upset me.”
Jessica preferred not to go into specifics but confirmed that she was consistently harassed by customers. Often, managers witnessed this harassment but chose to ignore both the customers’ behaviour and Jessica’s complaints.
“When I was there, [the work culture] was very negative,” Alice, who was a hostess at the same restaurant/bar, said. “I think it was quite a toxic environment. […] There was a lot of harassment, pretty much across all boards.”
According to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, employees over 18 who work more than six hours a day are entitled to “an uninterrupted rest break of at least twenty minutes.”
But Alice noted that she would often work nine-hour shifts without her legally mandated rest break. During this time, she experienced sexual harassment “almost every shift.”
One day, Alice was working an evening shift and serving a table of rugby players. Her co-worker walked out about an hour into the shift, disgusted by the players’ actions, but Alice stayed behind.
An employee who witnessed the incident recalled Alice being “handed about like a ragdoll between them. It was horrible, just watching her.”
“We were so harassed by these guys, […] just these rugby boys and their coaches,” Alice said. “I had guys touching my ass and making very crude comments to the point where one of the managers actually saw one of these guys inappropriately touching me.”
“I was staring right at [my manager],” she continued. “We made eye contact, [and] he saw this guy touch me. And he just turned around and walked out. I was so shaken up after that.”
Alice also described an instance when she gave several napkins to an older man who had a drink spilled on his trousers. When she asked if she could help with anything else, the drunken patron screamed across the restaurant, “Yeah, you can sit on my lap.”
Shocked, Alice looked around for support and saw her manager. This time, he didn’t walk away. He was laughing.
These incidents stood out for their severity, but they were just several examples, the three employees agree, in a long line-up of similar incidents of sexual harassment and mistreatment.
I had guys touching my ass and making very crude comments to the point where one of the managers actually saw one of these guys inappropriately touching me.
The three allege that on multiple occasions, management at the restaurant/bar did not actively respond to sexual harassment from patrons. Jessica went to a manager with a complaint and was told it “wasn’t their problem.” Alice, after seeing management’s attitude in action, felt it would be a “waste of time.”
Joel, a former bartender at the restaurant/bar, noted that his overall experience was not a negative one, but “the women were expected to put up with more than they should have.”
Alice’s breaking point came when a manager actually laid his hands on her.
“I was helping out behind the bar, and it was very busy,” she explained. “And one of the managers, […] he can go from zero to a hundred really quickly. He snapped at me that I was in the way and shoved me. I’m talking a 35-year-old man, shoving me. And I’m quite small. I was so flabbergasted by that. […] That was my last straw situation, where I was like, okay, this cannot go on any further.”
I was staring right at [my manager]. We made eye contact, [and] he saw this guy touch me. And he just turned around and walked out. I was so shaken up after that.
Employees interviewed recounted interactions with management that were inappropriately sexual in nature. Jessica and Kate both experienced a range of such comments from a lead manager. Certain aspects of the restaurant/bar’s policies, including the dress code for female employees, also reflected this culture.
“If they came into work and their skirt was too long, they were sent home to wear a shorter skirt,” Joel said. “If they weren’t wearing enough makeup, they’d be sent home to put more makeup on. If they didn’t have enough cleavage out, [they] would be sent home to [put on] a smaller top.”
In 2016, the Trades Union Congress conducted a survey on sexual harassment in modern workplaces. 52 per cent of women polled had experienced some form of sexual harassment. 28 per cent of women polled were subject to comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes, and more than one in 10 reported experiencing unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them. One in five reported that their direct manager or another figure of authority was the perpetrator. And four out of five did not report the harassment to their employer.
Lydia House, a spokesperson for the Zero Tolerance charity, which works to end men’s violence against women by promoting gender equality, said that “sexism, harassment, and violence in the workplace are still not taken as seriously as they should be, and women’s complaints are too often dismissed.”
She continued, “This creates a culture which prevents women from coming forward and reporting instances of harassment or abuse. Students, who are often new to the workforce, may be unaware or unsure of their rights, and unfortunately the female students could find themselves particularly vulnerable in the workplace.”
Victimisation is not limited to restaurants. Before Kate was employed at the restaurant/bar, she spent four months working at a different bar in St Andrews. Dana, another student, worked at the same bar for six months. During this time, she experienced the same sort of harassment from customers. Dana noted that when customers behaved inappropriately, her managers would generally find it amusing. She also recalled an incident when a customer grabbed her shirt as she was walking away.
If they didn’t have enough cleavage out, [they] would be sent home to [put on] a smaller top.
“I was like, you just can’t do that. And the manager thought it was funny. Stuff like that happened all the time, someone touching you on the dance floor,” Dana said. “They never actually did anything about it. They would actually laugh.”
At the beginning of their employment, both Kate and Dana worked “trial shifts” for which they were never paid.
“If the potential employee is being asked to do the job beyond a few hours, then it ceases to be a trial and verges on employment, which must be paid the national minimum wage,” Bryan Simpson, hospitality organiser for Unite Scotland, explained.
Dana’s “trial shift” lasted 12 hours, from 5 pm in the evening to 5 am the next day. Kate’s lasted from 8 pm to 2 am.
The “trial shift” was not the last time Dana and Kate worked without pay. On several occasions, both had to stay until well after closing time.
“After the [bar] closes at 2 am, instead of normal bar practice where we have cleaners come in early in the morning […], the remaining bar staff would have to clean up at the end of the night,” Kate said. “So I would be there until 4 am, cleaning the whole […] place, [although] I would get clocked out at 2 am when the bar shut. That was quite common.”
On a regular basis, Kate and Dana were not paid for hours of nightly work after closing –– and this work was well outside the purview of bartending. Additionally, they had to work these shifts without pause; neither Kate nor Dana were ever allowed their legally mandated rest break, even when working twelve-hour shifts.
“I worked there for about six months, and I don’t think I ever had a break,” Dana said. “I don’t think anyone did.”
Jane worked in promotions at another prominent venue in St Andrews. She worked front of house, holding menus and speaking to customers as they walked past. A few times, she went to work only to find the restaurant was closed for a private function and nobody had told her.
Once, when Jane showed up to work, she was asked, without prior warning, to visit all the bed and breakfasts in town and distribute promotional materials. One of the establishments was five miles away, but Jane wasn’t allowed to go home and change into more suitable walking shoes. She was told she couldn’t return until she’d delivered all of the materials and eventually returned with blisters. Jane was never paid for the extra hour of walking and quit soon after.
“There’s this mentality in this town,” she said. “Same kind of thing with housing. There are so many students. There are always going to be students wanting jobs, like there are always going to be students willing to pay extortionate rates for housing. And [these establishments] can do whatever they want. They can replace you in a second. They don’t have to make an effort to be good employers.”
Alice expressed a similar sentiment about the restaurant/bar where she was employed.
“They know enough that in a town like St Andrews, and with their reputation, they have no problem going through staff, because they know someone else would just love to work for them,” she said. “From what I’ve seen, what I’ve experienced, [the restaurant/bar] just kind of takes advantage of these individuals until they can’t handle it. They quit. And they just find someone else, within like a day. I remember when I quit, the day after there was already a [help wanted] notice up.”
I worked there for about six months, and I don’t think I ever had a break. I don’t think anyone did.
According to the University of St Andrews’ official policy statement, “harassment and bullying of one individual or group in the University community by another” will not be tolerated. But about half of students at St Andrews hold a part-time job. Time spent working is a significant portion of student life, and it is not subject to these safeguards.
What can student employees do to ensure better treatment? ACAS advises first approaching one’s manager with a complaint, but this is of no use when the manager is unwilling to take action or the actual perpetrator.
One option is to work only at establishments with a good track record and transparent employment practices. One notable example is the Union bar.
Eileen, who currently works at the Union, said she was paid for her trial shift, receives regular rest breaks, and feels safe on the job (due in part to the active, watchful bouncers).
“I think more establishments should do what the Union does,” she said. “We have the right to refuse service to anyone, whatever that reason may be, even if they’re just being way too aggressive or incredibly rude.”
What the Union has that some businesses lack is an infrastructure that incorporates accountability. It is university-affiliated, run largely by students and for students. The Union has an intermediary with elected representatives –– the Students’ Association –– and a student employee can trust the Association to have their best interests at heart. There is no Students’ Association for the restaurants in town, but there is another option: joining a trade union.
There are always going to be students wanting jobs, like there are always going to be students willing to pay extortionate rates for housing. And [these establishments] can do whatever they want. They can replace you in a second. They don’t have to make an effort to be good employers.
Unite Scotland, for example, is the only union in Scotland with a dedicated branch for hospitality workers. The group is launching a Fair Hospitality Charter that seeks to put pressure on companies to adopt policy changes for the benefit of their employees.
“Workers in the hospitality industry are some of the lowest paid and worst treated in the Scottish economy, in terms of holidays, sick pay, and contractual stability,” Mr Simpson, the organiser for Better Than Zero and Unite Scotland hospitality, said. “Less than four per cent of hotel and restaurant workers [are] a member of a trade union. We believe these are directly correlated because without a trade union, hospitality workers have very little collective voice […] to challenge exploitative working practices as well as negotiate for better wages and conditions.
“The most effective way that student workers can improve their pay and conditions is to join a trade union and organise collectively in order to hold their employer to account. The more members a workplace has, the stronger the worker’s voice will be, and the more likely it will be listened to by senior management.”
Unite is a Glasgow-based group, and thus many workers in Glasgow have a voice and the power of collective bargaining. Here in St Andrews, there are few checks and balances for large, monopolising institutions. Youth membership in unions is miniscule, and joining one can be tricky; if an employee on a zero-hour contract joins a union individually, their employer can easily stop giving them shifts to discourage other employees from doing the same.
Fiona, who worked at the same restaurant/bar as Alice, Jessica, and Kate, recalled issues with her initial contract. The contract she signed promised £6.40 an hour, but when she received her first paycheck, it was £5.33, barely over the national minimum wage.
“I asked [my coworkers], and they said, ‘Oh yeah, they tell you you’re going to get more pay than you actually are,’” Fiona said. “I thought, ‘Should I say something? But I know that a lot of kids in this town want a job, and I feel like they would just fire me if I say something.’”
Employees were also unlikely to earn money from tips. Alice noted that when she worked at the restaurant/bar, 60 per cent of all card tips went straight to management, and the remaining 40 per cent was divided amongst everyone who worked there (including bartenders, waitstaff, kitchen staff, and cleaning staff). This left a miniscule portion for hostesses. In one month, Jessica made £3 in tips compared to a friend who made £80.
“It was putting a lot of emotional stress on me. I hated going to work,” Alice said. “I’d just be there from 5 [pm] to two in the morning working, and then I’d have to wake up for a 9 am class. I just thought, this is not worth it.”
Today, several of these sources work at establishments with better employment practices and generous, above-board payment. Others have given up bar work entirely. But there are many students who accept exploitation as an inherent aspect of St Andrews’ hospitality industry.
“There was just kind of an overarching theme of sexuality, if that makes sense. It was a culture, that’s what it was,” Joel said. “And you had to buy into it. And once you bought into it, you were […] entrenched. Very much a bubble, like St Andrews.”
The Saint contacted the establishments referenced in this article to offer them their right of reply to the relevant allegations. The restaurant/bar and bar did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The online version of this article will be updated to reflect further updates.
Meilan Solly and Jonathon Skavroneck contributed to this article.