On Cooking and Exploitation

The New Zealand Herald is a bit like the New York Times, except it does not have good journalism or fact checking and mostly serves as a right wing mouthpiece. So I was unsurprised to find this article popping up on my facebook feed this morning, which begins, as all Herald articles do, with a baited line:

“one Rotorua restaurant owner believes Kiwis are losing their work ethic.”

This kind of journalism piece appears regularly in New Zealand media. Sometimes it’s about fruit pickers, or people on the benefit, or university students. Inevitably it is targeted at a group who are marginalized in some way, and inevitably it ends on the same note — some variation of ‘Kiwis are lazy”. It gets clicks. It sells ads. It’s generally poor journalism.

The article comes at an apt time, when the government is making it harder for immigrants who earn less than 48k to stay in the country. This is pretty terrible! What’s equally as terrible is the way restaurant owners have used this law change to position themselves as sympathetic to the plight of the immigrant (social justice, even) whilst having a whinge about how it will be hard to get employees. Because — wait for it — New Zealanders have no work ethic.

Yet it remains pertinent — why are these hospitality workers, many of them chefs, earning less than 48k? Surely if these workers were so valuable to the hospitality industry their erstwhile do-good employers would happily pay them? As they say: New Zealanders have no work ethic so won’t be able to do hospitality jobs. This hides the sinister truth: New Zealanders aren’t interested in being exploited. It’s not long hours, nights, or hard work — many more ‘gentrified’ positions can demand this too, now. It’s that the work is not fairly compensated for the skill level involved. Do you need evidence? Here, from the government’s own career’s website:

Butchers and bakers (and candle stick makers?) fare slightly better, on 40k a year. As young chefs we are sold a narrative based on passion and love of the job. High end restaurants, like Noma, don’t even pay their stages, who work for free. The justification is passion, love and the false narrative that the restaurant in question (Noma, Osteria, wherever) couldn’t make a profit without the free labour. As Nick Kokanas from Alinea states: “… We can indeed run a profitable business without free labor and are doing so.”

Cooking is hard, skilled work. It requires all senses to be used and this knowledge is often accrued over time (the smell of meat carmalizing, the sound of onions sizzling yet not colouring). It demands the cook treat increasingly expensive produce with thought and respect and actually navigate new pathways forward as a meat-heavy diet becomes increasingly irresponsible. A cook must be a craftsperson but also a philosopher. A cook must be able to manage a hundred tasks at once yet remain focused. Cooking is hard.

We are sold this narrative of working for love-not-money whilst the restaurant industry constitutes a whopping 4.3% of NZ’s GDP. Someone is making money. Restaurant owners’ panic around lack of immigrants isn’t a concern for immigrants at all — it’s the worry that cheap labour will run out. Yet if owners cannot run a business on fairly paid labour, should they be in business at all?