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On the Spot: The welcome mat's out to foreign workers in London

In London, the hospitality workforce is very diverse, thanks to European Union laws. And yes, many British-born don't favor a career in hospitality.

May 20, 2012|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times

Question: My wife and I recently returned from a nine-day trip to London, and we noticed that all the hotel staff was from non-British European countries and a few from countries in Africa. We also noticed that all the staff at the restaurants and some of the staff at the pubs where we ate and enjoyed their ales were from other European countries. Is this because these are jobs British workers do not want to do, or are there other reasons for this?

Ben Juarez

Los Angeles

Answer: If you don't believe London is a world city, take a look at its restaurants. During a visit to London earlier this month, I stayed in a little-touristed berg in London, where, within a block of the hotel, I found Polish, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Indian and Bengali restaurants and, yes, a KFC. It's emblematic of the city's diversity and, in the case of KFC, perhaps proof that Americans are gluttons — for punishment or other things.

More than a third of London's population consists of immigrants, and immigrants constitute 29% of its workforce, according to a 2008 study from the London Metropolitan Business School on the capital's hospitality workforce. Experts I spoke with explain this diversity as a result of the ease of access within the European Union.

"The EU laws mean that anyone can move and work freely in any EU country," said Andrew Ward, an associate professor of management at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. "Many of those countries have much higher unemployment, especially among young people, than does theU.K.," said Ward, a British native, "and so it is very attractive for a mobile young person to come to work in London."

Service-sector jobs often involve long hours, bad schedules and difficult, disagreeable work, the kinds of jobs that often fall to newcomers in any country. (Just look at Southern California — or history — for anecdotal confirmation of this phenomenon.)

Despite the diversity of the EU — first languages include German, Greek, Hungarian, Portuguese, Spanish and more — language is not a barrier, said Tim James, also a native of Britain who teaches at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University in Tempe. "Everybody's second language is English," he said. With language misunderstandings easily overcome and smooth access from other European Union nations, the welcome mat is out.

Life, of course, has changed greatly since the economy tanked. Certainly, the downturn has affected Britain, but its unemployment is about 8.3%, which looks encouraging compared with its troubled neighbors. Spain's is above 24%, andGreece'sis at 21.7%.Portugal'shovers at 15.3%, andIreland'sis at 14.5%. These unemployment rates may prompt an even greater flow of workers to Britain. But just how many can't be precisely known because the paper trail that follows immigrant workers is less stringent than in, say, the U. S., so stats aren't easy to come by, both experts said.

As for whether Brits just don't want those jobs, here's how that London Metropolitan Business School paper explained it: "A number of hospitality managers, academics and recruitment managers were interviewed, and the findings suggest they perceive hospitality as not favored as a primary career option amongst traditional British populations." Or, as one pub manager is quoted as saying, hospitality is "not everyone's cup of tea."

But make no mistake about it: The tea kettle is on; in fact, the UK Tea Council says the country consumes 165 million cups of tea daily, but if coffee is your thing — the council says about half as much coffee is sipped daily — you can find a mug of that too. As the British are fond of saying, "Cheers."

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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