Upstairs Downstairs: Downton Abbey and the Service Economy Dichotomy
Any waitress worth a 10 percent tip knows there’s a simple way to maximize the utility of a low-paying restaurant job: Befriend the guys in the kitchen.
That’s precisely how I met Angelo, a cook at a Vietnamese fusion pop-up restaurant where I briefly worked in London last summer. If I asked nicely, Angelo would gladly oblige my requests for duck and pear salads or prawn summer rolls each night after the kitchen closed.
As I sprayed lemon-scented cleaner on the greasy stainless steel partition that separated us, Angelo and I would chat about his wife, with whom he moved over to the UK from Brazil, and his son, who was five years old and developing a British accent. He told me that on weekdays, after mopping the floor at the restaurant, he would leave to mop the floors and empty the trash bins as a night janitor at a school in south London. Then he would arrive home, around the time his son woke up, and take him to school before getting some sleep. In the morning, it would start all over again.
There was always a physical barrier between Angelo and I during our conversations, which required me to duck below the metal hood each time he wanted to show me a picture on his iPhone or tell me a joke. But the more I got to know him, the more I noticed a more fundamental barrier that separated us, one that persisted despite the fact that we worked at the same restaurant.
Much has been written about the phenomenon of University graduates seeking hourly or low wage work in a dismal job market. I have, on more than one occasion, complained about the difficulty of earning a living as a writer in the rather unstable world of publishing. But ultimately, my stints doing low wage work are due to in large part to my own choices. In pursuit of a career I want, I’ve decided to eschew the office jobs that my university degree would, in theory, qualify me for.
However Angelo, and countless others like him who work ‘BOH’—back of house, in restaurant speak— don’t have that choice. Collectively they form a service workforce that’s as marginalized as it is invisible and many like Angelo, are forced to work more than one full time job to make ends meet.
The modern fascination with shows like Downton Abbey, which premiers its third season today, stems from a time when people were born into a rigidly defined class and social structures where people largely accepted their place in society. At the estate of Lord Crawley, two separate worlds—the socialites upstairs and the servants downstairs—run in close proximity to each other, yet their plot lines and challenges are largely independent of each other.
While it may seem as though that time of class separation has passed, for many workers—the ones who are employed to clean up after us, and prepare our food, and scrub our toilets—that parallel existence still persists. Last month provided a good example of that, when a letter signed by 60 janitorial workers was left on the desk of UK Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith asking for a pay raise. The bold move on behalf of one cleaner to leave the letter anonymously resulted in a subsequent meeting, where the Department of Work and Pensions agreed to begin paying 500 Whitehall cleaning and catering staff London’s Living Wage of £8.55, up from a minimum wage of £6.19.
That a wage so low would render it exceedingly difficult to live in the city of London—where a single underground fare at peak hour can cost £3.60—is obvious. That a government minister needed the person who empties his bin to point that out to him is indicative of the disconnect we have with the service workforce, one that’s not all that different from the days of Downton Abbey.
To be sure, those lucky enough to have graduated college in the past 5 years or so have been hit hard by the recession. However those same people would be well served by remembering that the ability to view a service job as a temporary means to an end is, in fact, a privilege and its one that people like Angelo don’t have.
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Original image from Fanpop.