Laws designed to protect employees would, you’d expect, ensure that each person has sufficient time and money to both survive and enjoy their life, and that employers not providing these things would be investigated and forced to change.

But we all know this isn’t always the case.

People in my current job point-blank refuse to work more than five consecutive days, and it’s freeing to be in an environment in which that is accepted, because many employers do not. Indeed, the law only requires one day (or twenty-four consecutive hours) off per week, or forty-eight consecutive hours a fortnight. Working twelve days in a row is perfectly legal, so long as you get two days off afterwards.

That doesn’t mean it’s not difficult, though.

I worked in a busy, perpetually understaffed hotel in central London for two years, before finally leaving over the summer. It doesn’t particularly make a difference which hotel; the hospitality industry is notorious for being exhausting, having more flexibility within how they treat employees, and being badly-paid (though I have to admit, pay was one thing my hotel did fairly well – I earnt more working there than I do now, in a much nicer place of employment).

Nobody working in that hotel would have complained at five or six consecutive days. Ten or eleven was fairly common among front of house and kitchen staff. I once worked sixteen, and somebody I worked with only took two or three days off in an entire month. This could have been worse within the housekeeping department: they were largely Eastern European women who spoke little English, so my interactions with them were limited to a friendly “hello” when I passed them.

Places of work which require 24-hour staffing, and places with shift patterns, are often granted a little more flexibility within the law. Even so, working twenty-eight out of thirty-one days does not sound like it would be looked upon particularly kindly; but of course there aren’t always repercussions. Hotel and hospitality employees are among the least unionised in the country. They are also, particularly in cities like London, staffed by a high population of migrants. People who don’t know the laws, or who don’t feel they have the power to complain, will often let mistreatment go — and will then go onto work hard, become management who think this is a normal way to work, and perpetuate the cycle.

This leads to a culture of overwork. This was rampant in my experience: the number of days you work becomes something of a competition – you’re working eight days? Well, I’ve got ten, and two doubles! You’d work longer and longer weeks, wishing it would end but also unwilling to admit defeat because your only validation comes from knowing you’ve worked a frankly inhumane number of days in a row, and survived. All someone has to do is encourage that mentality, and instantly you’ve got a whole team of staff who are suddenly more willing to work unpleasant shift patterns.

“Those occasional 53-hour weeks I was pulling meant nothing, as long as I pulled enough 46-hour weeks to drag the average down.”

It’s easy to throw the blame onto management here, but the people making the rotas are rarely to blame. Often, their bosses are unwilling to hire more staff, leaving managers with the choice between understaffed shifts or working more days. Both are exhausting. The best managers were the ones who’d be straight with you, who’d help out as much as possible on the floor, and apologise for the messes they weren’t fully able to fix. The worst lied, faked competence, forced an entire department to work ridiculous hours for months on end, and repeatedly scheduled only one person to be working the breakfast shift for a full hour, often after they’d finished at eleven the previous evening.

Even if employers did all follow the law to the letter, it’s still a little over-flexible in certain industries. You are required to have eleven hours rest within any given 24-hour period, and a twenty-minute break if you’re working more than six hours. This does not necessarily apply if you work on a shift pattern, or if you’re a domestic worker. Similarly, it is illegal to work more than 48 hours per week, over an average of seventeen weeks. However, certain occupations have a different reference period, and it is possible to opt out of the 48-hour week. Technically, you may not force employees to opt out, but many people are pressured into it.

So those occasional 53-hour weeks I was pulling? They mean nothing, as long as I pulled enough 46-hour weeks to drag the average down. It was fun trying to create enough costumes for the five shifts I worked over Halloween weekend last year, but trying to mentally process the reasons for my declining social life and mood whilst running on several months’ worth of massive sleep deprivation dampened the thrill somewhat.

Obviously, my situation was nowhere near the worst. Housekeeping departments’ work is more physically demanding than running up and down a restaurant for hours on end, and they’re often paid per room, and work for an agency rather than directly for the hotel. Trying to survive in London can be difficult for anybody, but it’s much more difficult for somebody working on the impossibly low wages of a housekeeper who might have a family, than for somebody like me, paying below-average rent and earning an hourly wage and tips just for myself. I can’t speak of the specifics of what the average housekeeper goes through – most of what I learnt of their job I had passed on by front of house colleagues who shared a language with them – but I know it’s a job I wouldn’t have wanted.

I don’t know what the solution is here. I’m just presenting a problem, with “THIS IS BAD” scrawled over the top in black marker. But I think maybe a start would be finding a way to teach people what they’re legally entitled to receive from their employers.

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