I’m writing this on the morning our new, post- Brexit immigration rules have been announced. It’s the lead story of the day. And everywhere I’ve seen it posted so far, it’s been illustrated by a library photo of someone pouring or serving drinks. When there’s talk of ‘unskilled labour’, clearly the first area the nation’s press thinks of is the pub and bar industry.
If I were a bar person or waiter, immigrant or born here, I’d be profoundly insulted by the use of this term – not only by the hard-right-wingers proposing these new measures, but also by those further left who oppose them. Whether you view tighter controls on immigration as a good or a bad thing, everyone seems to agree that working in a pub or bar is the perfect example of an unskilled job.
I’m not saying there are no unskilled bar staff. Rarely a week goes by when I am not served by someone who makes a mess of pouring a pint, or who doesn’t know what a cask ale is until I point out the handpumps, or who takes that same cask ale off sale when the barrel finishes because no one on duty knows how to change it.
Skills are different
But this is my point: we notice these failures because, common as they might be, they’re less than we expect from a competent member of bar staff. We expect a decent bar person to be able to pour a drink well into the correct glass, to do this with a variety of different drinks while serving a round, to take money and give the correct change (or use the card machine properly) and to do all this with a basic level of eye contact, personal acknowledgement and friendly demeanour. If that sounds like a lot to expect, you’re right – this is not an unskilled job.
The problem has two causes.
The first is that, as a society, we have a horrendously warped idea of what a ‘skilled job’ actually is. I may ‘always have my head in books’, as my dad used to say in a tone more critical than complementary but, unlike this Government, I recognise that my academic skills are merely different, not better than, skills that rely less on book learning and more on hands-on experience or talents that are not measured by exam papers. As well as trying to change a keg, I’ve also attempted to rake malt in a floor malting, harvest hops from their bines, graft apple trees, run a stock room, and handle orders behind a bar that’s three-deep. I made an absolute arse of myself each time. And yet, under the Government’s new points system, my academic qualifications make me more ‘skilled’ than immigrants who until now performed these jobs far better than I ever could.
The value of training
The second problem is we are guilty of undervaluing the skills we depend on. We don’t take the training of bar staff seriously enough. We don’t take enough pride in the level of skill demonstrated by those who do these jobs well. And we don’t challenge the people who label our staff as ‘unskilled’. I’ve been impressed by robust responses from industry figures such as Kate Nicholls and Steven Alton, who have made similar points, but I also meet many people in the industry who subscribe to the view that the jobs of their ‘colleagues’ jobs are unskilled, and don’t believe there’s any value in training them.
I’d like to see the people proposing these new rules do some of the jobs they regard as unskilled. To be fair to Boris Johnson, I have met him, and on the basis of that meeting I think he’d make a far better barman than he does a Prime Minister. Born into a different family and sent to a different school, I have no doubt he would have been. But I’d love to see Priti Patel trying to clean a cask line, or Dominic Cummings keep his cool behind a city centre bar at 10.45pm on the last Friday before Christmas.
The notion of work that is skilled or unskilled is an artificial construct that has always been wrong and is, suddenly, a lot more dangerous. The media could have chosen builders, bricklayers or fruit pickers to illustrate their coverage of these new policies, and a similar argument about what constitutes skill could be made for each job. But they didn’t: they all directed us to think about our pub and bar staff. This is a slur that should be challenged at every opportunity.