Hotel and catering workers: class and unionisation

Publication Date01 Apr 1999
AuthorAnnemarie Piso
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour
Employee Relations,
Vol. 21 No. 2, 1999, pp. 176-188.
#MCB University Press, 0142-5455
Received December 1998
Revised February 1999
Accepted February 1999
Hotel and catering workers:
class and unionisation
Annemarie Piso
Leeds Metropolitan University, Leeds, UK
Keywords Capitalism, Classes order, Commoditization, Hotel and catering, Trade unions
Abstract A coherent theoretical class analysis of hotel and catering workers can provide a
systematic means by which to explain the behaviour of these workers in reaction to their
employment. By examining the class relations within this industry, the paper challenges the notion
that hotel and catering workers are in any sense unique, but rather, suggests that the economic
role that these workers serve is as much a function of capitalist relations of production as that of
workers more commonly associated with high levels of unionisation. Though recognising that real
structural barriers exist impeding union growth and leading to individualised forms of resistance
among workers, the paper sets out to emphasise that the antagonistic industrial relations arising
from the work situation of hotel and catering workers can at the same time provide a fertile
ground for more collective forms of resistance thus laying the basis for higher levels of
Despite the economic shift in focus away from the traditional manufacturing
base towards the now dominant service sector, the focus of much of the
research within the field of industrial relations appears rooted in the past and
has by and large failed to examine in detail the position of workers within the
service sector (Lucas, 1996). In some industries such as hotel and catering, the
lack of a theoretical exploration of the employment relationship may have
served to strengthen the industry's own notion of itself as somehow ``unique''
(Mullin, 1981). In addition, the failure of unions to gain any real foothold within
the industry has led some writers like Riley (1993) to argue that this is a
reflection not just of the past, but also of the future. The characterisation of
work within this industry today differs little at times to the writings of Orwell
(1933) recounting descriptions of work in the Parisian hotels, with his emphasis
on strict hierarchies and deferential attitudes. Yet this is an incomplete picture,
and the characterisation of ``unbridled individualism'' (Lucas, 1996) is a partial
reflection of the employment relationship of hotel and catering workers today.
Orwell (1938) writing just five years later on his experiences of collectivisation
in Spanish hotels during the 1936 revolution, shows that workers' relationship
to their employment is dynamic in nature.
Surface appearances are an inconsistent method from which to analyse the
possible behaviour patterns of workers in relation to their employment.
Sociological studies conducted within the industry have not facilitated any
consistent class analysis of hotel and catering workers, as Wood (1992) asserts
largely because their focus and approach have been empirical rather than
theoretical. The reason that the labour of hotel and catering workers is engaged
is in fact no different to any other group of workers. Appearances may be of a

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