Wellington on a Plate: an Interview with Madds Leather

Yesterday I sat down with the Chair of the newly formed Hospo Workers Union, Madds Leather, to talk about the busiest time for hospo workers in Wellington: Wellington on a Plate. Wellington on a Plate runs for the whole month of October.  

Hospo Workers Union Chair, Madds Leather

Zeb Schrader: What is WOAP?

Madds Leather: Wellington on a plate is a food festival that happens each year in participating restaurants. The restaurants enter dishes and events in different preset categories. The idea is that you tour around Wellington and try each dish in each category, and at the end the public votes on a winner for each category. It’s a celebration of hospitality and a way to get people out there and engaged in the industry. 

ZS: What does WOAP mean for hospo workers in wellington?

ML: Customers who take it very seriously will try to visit every restaurant participating in the festival. People will be eating out 2 nights a week. What we workers see is a huge increase of people coming through restaurants. This means longer hours and a huge workload at a time where a high level of service is required from us. The element of competition is stressful for everyone involved and this is coupled with the whole workplace having to deal with new dishes and methods of service. In classic hospo fashion the expectation is that existing staff will pick up the slack. 

Our days start a lot earlier during WOAP, this is normally just to get ready for our regular service. Days finish a lot later because we need to stay open to fit the new influx of customers in. There’s a lot of organising that goes into balancing the regular service and our WOAP service before, during, and afterwards. It’s much harder work than regular service, and there’s a lot of new rules to adhere to. We have to change between levels of service for tables that are in for a casual dinner, just the WOAP burger or for a full a-la-carte fine dining experience. 

It sucks mostly because WOAP is also so exciting. As hospo workers we love looking after people. We love giving people a good time out and we love celebrating our fascinating and vibrant industry. At the same time, we want to be able to have our own social lives, to have the time and energy to take care of personal matters or to study. Working these exhausting 13 hour shifts doesn’t allow us to do these things. There must be a way to celebrate this industry without it being such a drain on the industry’s workers. 

The hardest part is that it’s not a few days, or a week: it’s a whole month. I’ve never worked in a restaurant whose staff did not suffer over WOAP. Especially for the full-time staff and management it can be a hellish month. Restaurants need to make changes coming into WOAP, and should consider bringing on more staff, and preparing for it in advance. We can’t keep running on the expectation that the current staff will just ‘suck it up’ over this period. 

ZS: What’s the solution, then?

ML: The solution is building union culture in these places. It is, unfortunately, the owners’ prerogative to make money. What this means is that an industry wide solution has to come from hospo workers – who are the ones truly invested in ensuring WOAP is a good time for all. It is in the bosses interests to keep staff on longer. If something is going to change on an industry wide level we need to stand up together and say that this is not acceptable. 

ZS: We’re coming up to NZ Labour Day, which falls bang in the middle of WOAP.  Labour Day used to celebrate the 8 hour working day, the 40 hour working week and 4 weeks vacation. These are all technically minimum standards in NZ employment law but they were significantly weakened by the Employment Contracts Act and are now beyond what most Hospo Workers get. What is on hospo workers’ minds coming into Labour Day? 

ML: Well, first of all, the pressure not to take holidays during WOAP, or any of the summer/Christmas period is insane. Even trying to book a week off in February, 7 months in advance, is too much for most hospo businesses to stomach. Personally, I’ll only be getting one 5 day holiday this year if I’m lucky, and maybe a couple of weekends. Most hospitality places cannot afford to have people leave because they don’t hire enough staff – this leads to incredible pressure on the staff to not take their time off. 

It’s a result of the fact that the only cost hospo owners really have much control over is their staffing costs. Commercial rent and food prices have been growing steadily for the past decade, and as a result this puts pressure on management to cut staffing costs, coming in the form of lower wages and other conditions. Hospo workers face a lot of downward pressure on their wages and conditions, and without a union, the only upward pressure comes from sporadic minimum wage increases from the government.   

Another thing I think about a lot when it comes to these long hours is drinking. The industry has a huge problem with alcoholism, and what WOAP shows is that long, stressful days exacerbate the problem. The uptake in drinking amongst staff during this month is immediately noticeable. When you finish at midnight, you know there’s no chance of getting 8 hours of sleep anyway, and if it’s been a crazy-stressful day people feel the only option is to drink and suck up the hangover the next day. This cycle that develops is why a proper 2 day weekend is so important. 

Of course we rarely get to take our breaks during this time as no one has the time to be off the floor during the middle of service for 15 minutes. If you’re lucky enough that your work provides you with lunch or dinner, these come late or not at all during WOAP because everyone in the kitchen is also too busy.  

ZS: Thanks so much for your time Madds, and good luck in the struggle.