Bartender-porters and free trials: a week looking for job during Dutch horeca staff shortage

by Massimiliano Sfregola

Translation: Steve Rickinson


For some time, everyone has been repeating this in the Dutch horeca business: the economy is at risk of stagnation because of staff shortage. Forget about a job crisis, in The Netherlands, the issue is that few are excited about working in the HoReCa industry. It looks like hotels, bars and cafeterias are more exposed than other sectors to this chronic labor shortage. The Dutch do not want to work in the restaurant business and instead open posts to foreigners, including those who do not speak Dutch, writes Parool. Why do locals ignore bar jobs?

31 Mag decided to look inside this sector in the midst of great difficulty, above all to understand what is not working efficiently. We choose Den Haag to observe how things turned in a more “Dutch” city than Amsterdam; I drew up a CV in Dutch and applied for some pubs and restaurants to see what is “broken” in the HoReCa industry. I was picked by a large and well-known pub chain in the center of Den Haag, and by a restaurant part that is part of an international chain.

My CV states: years of experience in the HoReCa and knowledge of Dutch. I was called by “Grote Markt” in Den Haag. The next day, I turned up for the interview: “I’m looking for a job that gives me extra cash,” I told Tania, early 30s, who said that she had been working for the company for many years. “My freelance business cannot always guarantee continuity,” I explained. In fact, I mentioned from the beginning that I was a journalist. “Very well”, says Tania enthusiastically “from the CV, I see that you have worked in London, Amsterdam and in HoReCa in Delft”, she says reading the document I sent.

She briefly talks about the organization and the work: there are 150 employees in the company, shared over a few bars all in the central and historic square in The Hague. But the thing is: no one, actually has a predefined role: “Everyone does everything”. And above all: everyone starts by collecting empty glasses or by serving at the tables, that is, everyone starts with the work of fatigue, the one that nobody wants to do. And for those who are good and are fond of the company, the promotion does not translate into better pay but reaching the “glam” of working behind the bar. If today’s organization of work has abolished the “entry-level” replacing them with interns, in the HoReCa – apparently – improving one’s condition means going from porter to image employee.

Years of experience?

Those don’t count in the Grote Markt. The trial days, in fact, will not be to verify the experience I say I have but for a starting role. In an “Amazonized” economy, the staff is like Lego bricks: it is added and removed at will.

The counter of the late bars in the square, the “jewels”, where in place of the North Korean corporate uniform, baristas wear casual are actually “off-limits”: the search for personnel, does not concern bartender but “runner” and waiters, that is those work of fatigue, paid little more than the national minimum, which nobody wants to do. The impression, from the beginning, is that the venues struggle to recruit or at least to retain both porters and waiters.

“Here we do not become rich, certainly. But the work is exciting! “, says Tamara. The first round of training points toward the counter and I study the bottles of rum, vodka, gin, beers, and glasses. A girl in her twenties, in charge of the bar, looks at me with curiosity.  “I was told you were looking for bartenders,” I say to her, who chuckles. “Bartender? I think we are looking for waiters and cup-holders, not bartenders ”. So, does the job I was hired for exist or not? On the day of the trial, nobody knows how to give the answer. Not even on the second day of trial is there someone available to answer the question. In the venue, apparently, there are more managers than staff and yet, none of them are in charge of making decisions.

On the second trial day, it is the “salsa” evening, one of the most popular for the bar/restaurant. Gin and wine flow in rivers, while tables and window sills are full of abandoned glasses. The place fills up quickly for a Wednesday night, and we are just four to run the local alcohol machine: we are clearly in the midst of a staff shortage compared to the needs presented, and my evening runs swinging between the cellar and the bar, to fill the refrigerators and the sink, spending time with my hands immersed in cold water to dispose of the column of glasses quickly. The next round, on Friday, is another race: in addition to porterage, table service is added. Even this evening we are understaffed.

And what might be waiting for me, if I really was someone looking for a job, looks clear from the beginning: the place has dozens of tables, a huge warehouse, a kitchen, and fifteen beers on tap. And the management is not at all looking for bartenders, but rather for porters to carry crates, store refrigerators, to clean and serve tables; porters to work for the national minimum. Temporary jobs just acceptable for a student who wants to make extra money.

The following week, we receive another call. This time it’s the international “Jamie’s Italian” chain. Jamie Oliver is a British chef who has built a career by opening restaurants on all continents, branding his kitchen as “Italian” (alternative) cuisine.

After the porter experience, will we find work as a bartender?

An international chain offers, at least on paper, the best guarantees for this. The restaurant has the standard minimalist appearance of such modern premises. The staff is young and the first impression is positive. None of those working while I turned up for the interview seem to speak Dutch, and a tall girl with tattoos in her early 20s introduces herself as a supervisor. “What experience do you have?” she asks me. Although the form to send the application on the website is rather tricky to fill, it seems that the girl has not even looked at my CV. In this case, I try more explicitly: I have no experience at the tables, but only behind the bar. “Okay it might just be necessary to serve occasionally at the tables,” she responds.

The hourly pay, even in this case, is the national minimum. We set the trial shift for the following weekend but this time the offer is not irresistible: “Unfortunately we do not pay the trial”. Hang on one minute: why don’t they pay hours of work? The request of the restaurant, in short, is free work for the first three hours. An unreasonable request: how can this be justified by a chain with restaurants everywhere? The need to ask for “trial shift volunteers”?

You ask to be paid? Trial shift gets cancelled

I then decide to “challenge” the venue and ask to reduce the free trial shift to two hours, expressing discomfort with the request. Surprisingly, the supervisor replies irritated and decides to cancel the trial shift. The reason? Having refused to offer three hours of free work shows I didn’t care enough about the position. “It doesn’t look to me that you really want this job”, is the answer. The supervisor insisted, in fact, that the trial had to be carried out in a particularly “busy” frame: given the specific request, is it ethical to ask to work for free?

The proof of loyalty consisted of, in short, in donating almost 30 euros in work performance. And considering the high turnover of recruitments in the HoReCa, the amount of cash saved asking every new staff to work for free for 3 hours is not insignificant. The most ironic part, however, is what the company’s website states in the career section: ” There’s a real purpose to working here compared to slaving away to make massive profits for some faceless corporation!”

We then look for a more specific position

We find in another well know bar/club in the city, a position as Barhoofd, a role in between bar management and a technical job. I decide, then, to try for an advert where actual experience is taken into account. All looks smooth, but one detail is not: the post is in Dutch, but it is requested to not only be fluent but actually being “Nederlands als moedertaal”. If the language can be improved to vloeiend, fluent, it is too difficult for a foreigner to become a native speaker. If not impossible.

I then write to the club asking what, exactly, means “moedertaal”: in the post is not written “moedertaal niveau” but actually “moedertaal”, native speakers which would be discrimination for those who are not. I then investigate if “moedertaal is actually moedertaal”. The venue replies but doesn’t get involved in politics: “it all depends how fluent in Dutch you are”, is the answer. Is it reasonable to believe that no matter how good is the experience and how advance is Dutch language knowledge, the foreign applicants might have little chances to get the job?

We reached out to both & FNV Horecabond for comment, both of which denied


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intestato al direttore Massimiliano Sfregola
(causale: recharge 31mag)

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