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A Marathon, Not a Stint

How “Uberisation” — the growth of gig economy apps dedicated to temporary restaurant shifts — could have ramifications for hospitality work in a country that already undervalues it

I would never have committed myself to fixed hours in an industry that is so stressful and tiring,” a London student, who prefers to remain anonymous to preserve her reputation with her work provider, told Eater in July 2021. In spring, however, as restaurants reopened their dining rooms following months of coronavirus lockdown, her friends told her about an app that could set her up with one-off shifts. She soon started taking on occasional short gigs in various local bars and restaurants.

“I would be put off by having to do interviews and trial shifts,” says the student, whose only term-time work now comes through an app called Stint, which launched in 2019 but has expanded its operations in spring and summer 2021.

In brief, Stint works like an Uber for hospitality labour. All of its workers are students: The idea is that students have plenty of “downtime,” but that they prefer short, one-off shifts over regular work because of their ever-changing schedules. Some of Stint’s micro-gigs are in small local businesses, such as Chelsea Creperie on the Fulham Road, or Zebrano, a bar on Soho’s Greek Street. Others are in well-known chains, such as Chipotle, the Mexican fast-casual corporation, or Busaba, the London-based Thai restaurant group. In September 2021, a spokesperson for the company told Eater that more than 1,000 businesses have used Stint, and more than 75,000 students have signed up to the app.

While temp workers typically measure jobs in days, weeks, or in some cases months, the students that make up Stint’s labour force take on micro-gigs, known as Stints. Some of these last as little as 90 minutes, with no ongoing commitments. Just as an Uber customer cannot hire the same driver again and again, Stint workers cannot guarantee turning one “stint” into repeat shifts at a particular business without entering into an employment relationship external to the app.

Apps like Stint have much in common with platform economy startups in other sectors. They prioritise efficiency and ease-of-use: After a five-minute document check to verify the student’s right to work, all Stint requires is some basic personal information, including a profile picture, as well as tax and financial details. Workers simply tell the app when they are free, and Stint matches them with a shift. Stint workers give businesses a starred rating at the end of a shift, and vice versa; an algorithm then sets them up with subsequent shifts.

This transactional rating exchange will be familiar to users of ride sharing or restaurant delivery apps as a typical feature of Uberisation, which describes the use of tech to disrupt existing work practices, as well as to bypass traditional intermediaries like taxi companies, or in this case, work agencies. As other app work has blurred the boundaries between employees, workers, and the self-employed, the Uberisation of hospitality labour similarly bypasses the traditional employment contract.

Uberisation is no stranger to the U.K.’s food and hospitality industries. Uber Eats, Just Eat, and Deliveroo, as well as a swathe of new grocery delivery companies, have all changed the way food and drink reaches customers. Many businesses have long outsourced cleaning tasks to agency workers, and do not have to guarantee them minimum-length shifts or future work. As with delivery and cleaning, the micro-gig economy promises hospitality workers and businesses “flexibility.” No need to offer full-length shifts; no need to fulfil the ongoing responsibilities owed to permanent employees.

Stint also did not invent app-based temporary work, and it is not the only tech company with its sights on hospitality staffing. A growing number of existing tech startups like Flexy and Gig, which provide short-term workers to businesses across a number of industries, are attempting to instil themselves as solutions to restaurateurs’ problems. The online recruitment giant, Indeed, bought Syft, another temporary work app specialising in hospitality and events, in 2019, and in April 2021, Syft rebranded to Indeed Flex. It already has more than 44,000 users looking for jobs. The market also includes more specialist apps, like Limber, with its sole focus on hospitality, and Baristas on Tap, which only supplies trained baristas.

Unlike for the food-delivery and ride-hailing monoliths, however, extreme market circumstances in the hospitality industry have substantially accelerated the early growth of Stint and its contemporaries. The tech-facilitated platform economy is making inroads in bars, cafes, and restaurants due to labour shortages caused by Brexit, which has impacted the availability of E.U. workers, and the pandemic, which has forced some to rethink their careers.

But Stint and Indeed Flex aren’t looking at this perfect storm as a fleeting opportunity: They see it as a chance to redefine the market for years to come. Stint claims to be “the future of work,” while Indeed Flex promises “a future of new opportunities.” And while neither app is guaranteed to become the next big startup, some in the hospitality industry are already asking what a future of app-based temporary labour would look like. Staff in an industry desperate for workers might be expected to have the upper hand in demanding job security and better working conditions. However, instead of making hospitality into a more fulfilling and financially viable career, the Uberisation of staffing encourages businesses to cut costs by doubling down on the use of precarious work, which is low-paid, insecure, and unpredictable. An already difficult way to make a living, rife with erratic working patterns, night shifts, and zero-hour contracts, which allow employers to take on staff members without guaranteeing them minimum working hours, risks being made less secure still.

Max Coltart, head of business development at Countertalk, which promotes healthy working environments in hospitality, says that app-based platforms propose a “short-term fix” for the long-term issue of labour shortages in the industry. Using more temporary workers can leave businesses with less budget for recruitment and training, “making it harder to hire permanently in the long term.”

While Stint reassures businesses that it will “take care of the heavy lifting,” its customers are responsible for following health and safety rules. Bryan Simpson, an industrial organiser for the trade union Unite, says that to comply properly with these requirements, “the training can’t be rushed.” Some Stints, meanwhile, last as little as 90 minutes. A spokesperson for Stint tells Eater that its “onboarding system for businesses is designed to ensure that health and safety protocols are in place and are communicated clearly to students.”

Businesses generally pay Stint £10.99 per hour for a student worker, which also covers all the “costs of employment” that workplaces shoulder when they employ a staff member, such as tax contributions. Stint explains that this is more or less the “same hourly wage as your staff [...] but for two hours instead of eight” — though its workers themselves take home just £8.92, a token penny above the highest U.K. minimum wage for people over 23, and more than two pounds below the London Living Wage of £10.95. While this puts the pay above minimum wage for those between the ages of 18 and 23, which could be beneficial to individual students, its net effect could contribute to the continued devaluation of hospitality labour.

Stint’s terms and conditions include a £1,500 “introduction fee” if the employer takes on a Stint worker as a permanent employee. How this would work in practice is unclear: It would rely on a business formally notifying Stint that it has gone on to employ that person. Nonetheless, the very existence of this fee might work as a deterrent, or could encourage a business to engage students on an “Extended Stint” first, where it will still pay Stint’s set prices for those workers. (This then exempts it from the introduction fee.) Coltart is concerned that temporary workers might be treated as “disposable labour,” which could put students off the industry for good. After all, a business has little incentive to nurture workers it will never see again. Amardeep Singh Dhillon is a bartender and a founding member of South London Bartenders Network, a community of mutual support for hospitality workers that aids trade union organising efforts in the sector. Dhillon says that platforms like Stint encourage students at the beginning of their careers “to accept precarious work as a normal part of being on the job market,” which will have repercussions beyond the hospitality industry.

Stint promises businesses that it can take the pressure off trained staff by giving “basic tasks” to student workers. Part of its pitch is that this makes the core team happier, and more likely to stay on. Stint lists greeting customers, taking them to their tables, and clearing their empty dishes as common examples of “basic” tasks, which it says “require little to no skill or experience.” Of four hospitality workers interviewed by Eater, none agreed that these are “basic” tasks — any role involving customers requires tact, professionalism, and patience — and all questioned whether basic tasks existed in hospitality at all.

The customer testimonials produced by Stint naturally show the tech startup in a favourable light, but the themes that recur in them are enlightening. Of the six businesses whose case studies appear on Stint’s website, only one mentions the benefit to existing staff; with one exception, all focus on the tech startup’s ability to reduce overall labour costs.

Students working their first jobs in hospitality might be unaware that Stint’s micro-gigs are not the norm in the industry. Permanent staff, on the other hand, would justifiably be unhappy with a 90-minute shift, which they know is both inconvenient and unusual in hospitality. Especially in London, a gig like this could involve an unpaid commute that is longer than the shift itself. And while Stint’s affable and relatable student-facing image emphasises how the app makes it “easy af” to fit occasional work around other commitments, its industry-facing persona is quite different. To businesses, it promises to “eliminate” the “excess hours” worked by permanent staff during quieter periods. For some workers in the hospitality sector, this is a troubling development.

Dhillon tells Eater that workers are facing “an extension of casualisation, in which employers replace permanent or full-time job positions with temporary or casual work.” Dhillon says that this practice “is already endemic in hospitality and has been exacerbated by the pandemic.” In particular, he worries that apps like Stint give employers “instant access to someone outside of a workplace’s existing social circle.” Hospitality workers on zero-hour contracts could find themselves competing with this temporary labour force for shifts. He also says that hiring platform workers might especially appeal to unscrupulous employers. “It’s a threat to hang over the existing workforce, to deter them from things like union organising. If they start standing up for their rights, which many hospitality workers don’t know they have in the first place, employers can just click their fingers and bring in a whole new workforce.” A spokesperson for Stint, however, disputes this, saying that its students are brought in to work alongside existing teams “during a business’ daily peaks.” Stint workers are “not seeking full-time work, and they are not a replacement for a business’ permanent staff.”

Ultimately, Stint envisions a future in which businesses retain a “lean workforce,” supplemented by a pool of gig-economy workers during busy periods. In aiming to “substantially reduce labour costs,” it has developed a labour productivity model to suggest cost-efficient staffing rotas for its business customers. This tool uses a formula to determine the “minimum skilled and unskilled headcount” needed at a given time.

As the sociologist Patrick McGovern writes in a blog post published by the London School of Economics, that the term “unskilled worker” is a “hopelessly inaccurate description of a functioning human being.” This is no less true in hospitality. Simpson tells Eater that “there is no such thing as unskilled work in that environment. Hospitality workers are the ultimate multitaskers. If you’ve ever done any work at all in a fast-paced bar, there’s no way you can argue that that’s not skilled.”

Hotels, bars, cafes, and restaurants are central to the U.K. economy, but this is often not reflected in how hospitality workers are treated. Simpson notes that in other economies, citing Sydney as an example, “there are people who retire after working in the industry, because they’ve got strong unions and labour laws. It’s seen as a proper career, which is exactly what it is.” The recruitment crisis, he says, is bigger than COVID-19 or Brexit. “When you look at the typical packages on offer — below a living wage, and without hours they can rely on — it’s no surprise that so many [hospitality workers] have had enough.” For Simpson, the Uberisation of staffing is symptomatic of a wider problem in the U.K. hospitality industry: The consistent undervaluing of its workforce.

In the case of Stint’s model, the idea of “unskilled workers” does not only do a disservice to the tech startup’s temporary workforce. It is also used to justify “keep[ing] core teams small,” reducing the number of traditional paid job opportunities in the restaurant industry. “If hospitality is your career, and you’re in it for the long term,” Simpson says, “you’ll be angry about that, and rightly so.”

In a 2020 survey of more than 9,000 U.K. students, 62 percent told the National Union of Students that they work at least part-time alongside their studies. Stint’s spokesperson told Eater that the app “is not a replacement for students wanting full-time work.” Instead, it is designed “for students who want to fit occasional work around their studies.” Its model assumes that student workers value flexibility over guaranteed hours. While this is true for some, a recent Financial Times article points out that over one-third of students at London’s South Bank University work full-time, more than 35 hours a week. “They can’t afford not to have decent work,” Simpson tells Eater. “The priorities of the vast majority of students working in hospitality are no different from any other permanent staff. They need guaranteed hours and a living wage.” His union has long campaigned against zero-hour contracts, and apps like Stint are extensions of a similar trend toward precarious work, which so-called “gig economy” platforms are seeking to rebrand as something that affords “flexibility.”

The student who spoke to Eater is looking forward to taking on hospitality gigs again when she returns to London in the autumn. She is not looking for the commitment of a “regular, consistent job,” and prefers being able to earn on the side, as and when she needs the money and it suits her schedule. Stint’s spokesperson told Eater that the company is “expanding rapidly.” Having previously been confined to London, in May 2021 it launched in 32 U.K. cities.

Hospitality work in the U.K. has long been precarious and undervalued, and some tech companies had already spotted opportunities for Uberisation before the pandemic. The labour shortages resulting from Brexit and COVID-19, however, have created the perfect environment for the growth of app-based temporary work, though how long these unprecedented conditions will last remains unclear. This means that the future of hospitality labour is not yet in the hands of tech startups. Political and economic conditions — as well as the actions of workers and the choices made by employers — will determine whether yet another aspect of working life falls even further into a worldview that prioritises convenience at the expense of rights and protections for workers.