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Coffee and Community - a barista's take on Covid-19

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

A lot can change in two weeks.

Ten days ago, I was pushing to get a new espresso machine installed and for my staff members to get a pay rise at the coffee shop I manage. Fast forward a week, and I'm fighting for them to get paid at all. The company I work for, as well as most London retailers, bars and restaurants, had to cut down on opening hours and labour even before the government ordered us all to close on Friday. Today, I wonder whether I'll be stuck making home brew and write spontaneous think pieces for the rest of eternity.

It's been a ride, and, say what you will about the lockdown, but I hope it will provide a moment of quiet and reflection in these stressful times. For now, me and my colleagues feel at least somewhat rest assured by the governments plan to cover 80 percent of wages, a measure I, and no doubt my employer, welcome.

But what about "self-employed" temp workers and couriers? What about everyone who already got laid off, are ill, or unlucky enough to be between jobs at the time of crisis? What about the day when the shops open again? How long for the economy and the NHS to recover?

Regardless of what happens next, the pandemic, I believe, will force us as a society to re evaluate our view of work (especially things like flexible and zero hour contracts) and the outsourcing of our healthcare system.

The hospitality sector is one of the least unionised parts of the labour market. This is due to a number of factors - a lack of tradition, high turn-over rates, and a big portion of workers being either young or migrants (or both, as myself), knowing or having little access to their rights. In a wider perspective, trade unions in Britain have been weak since the Thatcher era, and we've been raised in a culture that makes us favour individual strength over collective action.

For baristas working in London and other major cities, filing a grievance against your employer is rarely worth the bother. If unhappy, you just hand in your notice - and within a week can find a new coffee shop to work at. Perhaps I'm unusual in that I rather like my job - I figure it suits me better than working in an office, and is more rewarding than most "low-skilled" jobs - that you so kindly leave for us EU migrants (or, at least have in the past). But for many in their twenties, working in coffee is seen as temporary - something to pay the bills until you get that graduate job (or make it as an artist..).

It took a virus to show us the real fragility of this system. Two weeks ago, things suddenly became very real. Would we be able to pay the rent - would turning up for work be a major health risk - will we still have a job in a month? I was helping my team read up on their legal rights in fear of lay offs - we read through contracts and shared support and knowledge. It was telling how little most of us knew, and how many things we've simply taken for granted in the past. Deep down I think we always knew that, even if the employer doesn't want to sack anyone, they will if they must, and business is to them more important than our livelihood.

I've heard people talk of the apocalypse, saying how austerity or climate change, or whatever, will be the downfall of society. But we didn't expect this. We didn't expect any of it.

London wakes up this morning, not only in lockdown, but to the realisation that the future is uncertain. There is, I think, a potential for unity around that. And if our leaders are not gonna be prepared for it, we better be.

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