Jobs Save Lives

Many citizens congratulated the South African government when they took the nation into lockdown on March 26, 2020. President Cyril Ramaphosa received messages of support from around the world congratulating his administration on their swift and decisive response to the Covid-19 threat.

WRITTEN BY RUSSEL WASSERFALL 
IMAGES BY CHEFS WAREHOUSE 

Nationwide protests against stark lockdown controls were organized, and the #jobssavelives movement featured strongly in them.

In fairly short order though, the buoyant mood at home was muted when some prohibition-style measures were put in place to regulate citizen behavior. Tobacco and alcohol sales were banned. A bizarre list of items that could and could not be sold – including T-shirts and other items of clothing – appeared in the government gazette. Cracks started to appear.

 

The words ‘Draconian’ and ‘fascist’ started appearing in the press and on social media in relation to lockdown. An underground economy was soon providing the comfort of ciggies and booze to those who knew where to ask, but for the most part South Africans accepted the need for isolation.

 

Lockdown was intended to give the state time to prepare for the worst of the pandemic that was surely ahead. Responsible citizens shouldered the load and businesses started to adapt to new realities. Some gains were made – in some of the bigger and better administered provinces beds were created and capacity built. But the economy began to wobble.

 

Some sectors were able to adapt quickly to the new order while others simply changed direction. A new word became suddenly fashionable. Businesses and entrepreneurs were required to ‘pivot’ to survive. Not all industries can pivot equally though.

 

For the restaurant industry a crisis loomed. The initial 5 week-lockdown also meant total shutdown for eateries. In an industry where many are trading from hand-to-mouth, danger is often just 30 days or an unpaid supplier away. Inevitably some old favorites that had been operating on a wing and a prayer were lost in this period.

Chef Liam Tomlin (left), on whose shoulders fell the task of speaking for the voiceless in an industry reeling from the twin assaults of a global pandemic and a government’s heavy hand. Local favorites like the Fat Cactus picked up the cause, and soon it was spiraling to players like Foxcroft and La Colombe and further afield.

During this time, the economy contracted significantly. Some reports put the figure at one third, while billions in tax and duty revenue was being lost to bootleggers selling cigarettes and alcohol out of the back of their cars.

 

On the May 1st, the country moved to Lockdown Level 4. This was the first step in what was presented to citizens as a staged opening of the economy. The sale of alcohol and tobacco products remained forbidden, but eateries were allowed to offer a meal delivery service.

 

Many operators, ravaged by five weeks of no income with staff, rent and other expenses to pay, found a way to offer a limited drop-off service. This ‘pivot’ however was not really a viable solution for businesses paying ripe rentals in high-traffic areas. It was therefore a massive relief when Level 3 was announced in the last week of May to begin on June 1. 

 

To the industry’s tearful joy, restaurants were allowed to offer meals on a call-and-collect basis. Alcohol sales were also allowed with some restricted hours, and anyone with an on-consumption liquor license (like licensed restaurants) was allowed to sell liquor from their stores.

 

Level 3 was revised later that month and restaurants were allowed to offer sit-down dining from June 29 as long as certain social distancing and track-and-trace protocols were adhered to.

The post that started it all. Chef David Schneider displaying the jobs put at risk in his restaurant by government policy.

While most agreed that the terms of trade would leave businesses treading water at best, they would at least be able to feed staff and survive until the economy re-opened fully. There was hope. Plans were made, reserves tapped and there was a nervous flurry of diners posting images and reviews of their first restaurant experience in months.

 

Then, quite out of the blue, on the evening of Sunday, 12 July it was announced that sale of alcohol in South Africa was banned with immediate effect. The measure had already been gazette, and so it came into law with effect from Monday, July 13. It was the contention of the state that alcohol-related incidents of domestic violence, contact crimes and traffic accidents had soared since prohibition ended and cases were rapidly gobbling up hospital beds needed in the battle against Covid-19.

 

For restaurants, the move was devastating. 

 

Since stage 4 of the lockdown, appeals for support from a few operators had been posted in a popular Cape Town restaurant group on Facebook. There were mutterings about ‘draconian’ rule and increasing dissatisfaction with measures that many considered illogical and framed by people who had no grasp of the plight of business. These posts gathered momentum in stage 3, but after the ‘booze ban’ the muttering became shouting, and the announcements of permanent closures started to appear.

 

Anyone who has an inkling of how restaurants work will know that sales of alcohol, particularly wines play a vital role in the experience. For venues already cutting their seating capacity by as much as 50% due to social distancing, losing this revenue was backbreaking. With meagre resources already spent on personal protection equipment for staff as well as thermometers and other gear for new hospitality protocols, it finally seemed there was nothing more to give.

 

The chef of a restaurant in Franschhoek called David Schneider took his anger to Instagram. Schneider is the chef/patron of Mason Restaurant, a member of a group of restaurants co-owned by chef Liam Tomlin. The Chefs Warehouse group had been working to help with feeding schemes, struggled to feed and retain their staff against the odds. This new move finally forced them into action.

Nationwide protests against stark lockdown controls were organized, and the #jobssavelives movement featured strongly in them.

Tomlin stood up and gave the industry a voice. He is a highly regarded, award-winning chef whose global experience in the industry and innovative approach to running eateries is greatly admired. His group of five restaurants also has a large Instagram following.

 

All it took was one image. On July 13, the Monday the second prohibition began, Schneider posted a Black & White image of himself in front of his restaurant holding a placard with the number of jobs threatened at his venue. Thali, another CW eatery came next. They tagged the posts #jobssavelives and a movement was born.

 

Within days, dozens of restaurants had posted their plight in similar fashion. The media was quick to respond, calling Tomlin for interviews and driving further action. Plans were set in motion for protest action and an industry of loners, reeling from multiple regulatory blows and the threat of Covid-19, was united.

 

Through this protest, the authorities were learning that restaurants were a building block not only in the country’s social fabric, but also for employment. An estimated 500,000 people are employed in the restaurant industry in South Africa, from chefs to dishwashers.

 

In a developing economy beset by unemployment, structural inequality and the resulting poverty, each person employed in a restaurant generally supports a family or dependents. The ripples spread wider than just restaurant brigades. 

 

The Chefs Warehouse group collectively employs 225 people. This grows to about 300 staff in season. They also receive stock or services from approximately 150 suppliers. Some are wine farms or fishermen others are cleaning companies or financial services. The web of restaurants’ influence throughout the economy is vast.

 

The #jobssavelives movement is significant because it brought small and independent operators together under a single banner. The hashtag featured in organizing several protests to focus government attention on the plight of the hospitality industry in general. 

 

Civil society, through social media and a number of television and radio interviews with chef Tomlin has been made aware of the devastating effects of government’s ill-considered policies around Coivid-19. Perhaps more important, it has mobilized bigger concerns like corporate food manufacturers and retailers to join the struggle to pen the economy and allow South Africans to work at this precarious time. 

 

It has also led to a move to set up mechanisms to address challenges faced by chefs and hospitality staff like stress, depression and substance abuse. Restaurant staff enjoy a special camaraderie that comes from the unique conditions in which the industry operates. Getting organized and getting even the smallest player on board can only be a good thing for the business at large. After all, jobs save lives.

© 2020 by Inkognito AS.

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