All quiet on the kitchen front?

Six out of ten interns in Spain work with no salary, according to a recent study released by the European Commision. It is not just here: in the 28 EU-member countries, 59% of interns have unpaid roles, 58% in Spain alone. The percentage is higher in some other neighbouring nations, such as Belgium (59%), the UK (69%), Denmark (65%) or Germany (60%).

There are around 70,000 interns working in Spain, seven in ten claim their job tasks and responsibilities are equivalent to those employees with a work contract. The Catalunya Open University (UOC) recalled these data after the latest media turmoil in Spain: apprentices working up to 16 hours per day for free in Michelin-starred restaurants, managed by prestigious haute cuisine chefs, as a normalised and accepted condition.

The feature, originally published by ‘El Confidencial’ (link in Spanish), talks about kitchen staff (stagiers) working long hours per day, under really tough conditions, with absolutely no salary at all. The more Michelin stars the restaurant has, the more unpaid stagiers you will find. One star? Between 10 and 30 % of the staff will be unpaid. Two stars? Up to 50–60% of them. Three stars? Up to 80% of the kitchen staff will be interns with no salary for their 16-hour day of work, while customers will pay more than €200 for a main course.

Michelin TV chef Jordi Cruz fuelled the debate arguing that “it is a privilege for them, learning from prestigious chefs in a real atmosphere, involving no costs and providing accommodation and food. Imagine how much this would cost if it was a postgraduate course in a different sector.” Cruz also added that “a Michelin starred restaurant will always be a business, and if all kitchen staff are employed with a salary, it will not be viable.” Most of his colleagues -other awarded chefs- agree with him, but the public debate is there: where is the limit between the privilege of learning from the best chefs in the world, and slave labour? Is this a necessary evil in order to maintain the well-established system?

Actually, Jordi Cruz’s restaurant will now face a Labour Ministry investigation into the conditions of all its kitchen staff contracts and conditions. In the UK, Michel Roux Jr recently got into trouble for paying some kitchen staff below the minimum wage, as opposed to Spain, where some people believe that there is no problem to have unpaid interns, since ‘that’s the way it is, the way you learn.’ Spanish law allows businesses to have interns and the onus is on the companies to pay them or not, but their work should always consist in a mix of theoretical and practical training, and their tasks should always be monitored and focused on their own learning, so they should not be used as just another member of staff thus saving costs to the restaurant — that would be illegal, especially if they work more hours than they can, by contract (definitely, 16 hours per day is way beyond any reasonable limits).

The turmoil generated by Jordi Cruz’s recent statements has pitted companies against unions over the payment of internships. Given the magnitude of the crisis, Jordi Rosell, president of the Spanish Confederation of Business Organisations (CEOE), has stated that “working for some time with experts, even without payment, is an opportunity for those who are learning.” However, those who agree with him all seem to forget that this system is highly discriminatory, as not everyone can afford to work for free. Nelson Mandela said, back in 1966, that “we must work together to ensure the equitable distribution of wealth, opportunity, and power in our society.” Let’s make it work, not just for chefs-to-be but for all apprentices, whatever they may be.

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