Do students have a responsibility to boycott institutions that treat their staff poorly?
Over the past year, coinciding with the controversy surrounding the G1 Group and the rise of Better Than Zero, more and more Glasgow establishments have been called out on the poor treatment of their staff. Service workers often fall between the cracks of employment regulations and are some of the most vulnerable employment groups, as many are on part-time or zero hour contracts. Because of this, those working in the service industry feel like they have no way of challenging poor treatment from the higher-ups as they are entirely at the whim of these managers. Hopefully, this community support will help staff feel supported to speak up and draw attention to their manager’s poor practices. The threat of losing their business might be enough to make them reconsider how they treat their staff.
I am so glad that more and more attention is being given to these cases and I wish that service workers overall were better supported in having their employment rights respected - a lot of these workers are themselves students and not familiar with such rights. I think the University could help with educating students about what to do when they find themselves in a situation where they are being mistreated. Boycotting is a big part of helping to educate people and help service workers feel supported by the community while putting pressure on the establishments to get their act together.
As a former student café worker who did not get paid the tips we were making and had to work with an unstable manager prone to anger and micromanaging, would it have helped if I knew people were boycotting the café I worked for in solidarity? Probably. The truth is I never said anything to my manager about the tips and I never challenged her when she made everyone feel like they were being constantly watched. I worked there for three years and I worked there because I needed to. It was my only source of spending money during my university years and I was scared to lose it. Don’t get me wrong - I loved the café and the clients, but the management made me feel perpetually undermined. I researched the legality of it at the time and I couldn’t actually find anything saying she had to share the tips so I put up with it – she did take us out for a meal once a year, but you could only order from the cheap side of the menu. I hated that I never said anything and I started so many angry unpublished posts on her Facebook page so that people would know that behind her seemingly pleasant and bubbly persona was a manager that was controlling, often unkind, and lied about her homemade overpriced cakes.
Whether she is still managing the café and whether her treatment of her staff has improved, I don’t know, but unless managers or owners actually change their practices, staff can often come out worse as a result of people boycotting their place of work. A lot of the staff are employed on zero-hour contracts which basically gives managers a free hand at taking revenge on their staff by withholding hours. This can have devastating consequences on those workers that completely depend on this income. Also, if there are less customers that might also mean less tips (for those that even get them). This might be a hard blow, especially for those working in bars and restaurants who need the extra money to get by.
There is also the issue of whether students can actually afford to boycott these places. As a student, your spending power is limited, so using your money to make political choices may not be an option for some. A lot of these places keep their prices low by cutting corners on other aspects – like neglecting staff - and this makes them appealing to students who are price sensitive. This can be made especially hard when all your friends also use these cafés or bars.
Ultimately, boycotting helps those service workers feel like they are not alone in their fight for respect, but whether it actually leads to any change in management practices, I am unconvinced. I think students are especially vulnerable in the service sector as they might not know their rights, and I think that is one place to start. Nonetheless, I feel that we do have a responsibility as consumers to be informed about where we spend our money, and we should use that information to make spending decisions that are beyond our self interest.