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‘I don’t blame customers for getting annoyed’: a coffee house owner on life without EU workers

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Anas Zein Al-Abdeen doesn’t want to close his business for three days a week – but, increasingly, it looks like his only option. He simply can’t get the staff. “It’s horrific,” he says. “We can’t plan for anything.”

The 40-year-old British-Syrian businessman runs Damascena, an independent chain of four Middle Eastern coffee houses in and around Birmingham. All of his cafes are affected, but the one in central Birmingham is the most short-staffed, with 25 workers instead of the usual 30. “It’s very stressful,” he says. “Most businesses worry about getting customers. But I’m just worried if we can serve them or not.”

Al-Abdeen is caught up in a nationwide hospitality industry crisis. September figures from the Office for National Statistics show that hospitality businesses are now twice as likely as those in other industries to struggle to fill vacancies: 30% of all hospitality businesses reported issues in filling posts, although the rate of vacancies across the labour market appears to have slowed recently, down from 43.4% in May-July 2021 to 23.4% in August-October.

Many within the sector chalk this up to the exodus of EU workers from the UK since Brexit. “Employers are telling us that lots of people, even if granted settled status, have chosen to return to their native countries,” says Jane Gratton, the head of people policy at the British Chambers of Commerce. “We’re seeing staff shortages in many sectors that didn’t have shortages before.”

Previously, Damascena was reliant on EU workers for most of its workforce – pre-Brexit, 90% of its staff were from elsewhere in Europe. “There’s always a turnover of people in this industry,” says Al-Abdeen. “People don’t tend to stay long. But there were always fresh workers from Europe.”

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Brexit changed everything. “A lot of people have gone back to their native countries and decided not to return to the UK,” says Al-Abdeen. “That tap of new workers has been turned off.” Previously, he would expect to have 70 applications for a post; now, he is lucky if he gets 10 – and only a few will bother to turn up for an interview.

The staff Al-Abdeen can recruit tend to be inexperienced – but he can’t be choosy. “Normally, we’d have a staff member spend three months on probation before they are fully trained and ready to work unsupervised,” he says. “At the moment, most of our staff are new and we’re not able to do that any more.”

He will not say how much he pays an hour, but he says it is well above the minimum wage and comparable with other coffee chains. “We’ll also promote people quickly,” he says. “There are some employees who started just three months ago and they’ve already climbed up the wage structure.”

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We can’t force British workers into jobs they don’t enjoy or wantAnas Zein Al-Abdeen

He has put up pay, but he can’t afford to pay the same as major corporations without becoming unprofitable. “How can we compete when Amazon is paying £1,000-plus sign-on bonuses?”

“I heard Boris’s speech,” says Al-Abdeen, referring to the prime minister’s address last month to the Tory party conference, in which he claimed that Brexit would be positive for UK workers, as their wages would rise. “But that’s easier said than done. I don’t believe the wages are the issue. We can’t force British workers into jobs they don’t enjoy or want. Businesses can’t afford to inflate their wages overnight. If the Tories believed in what they were saying, there would have been a transition to allow businesses to adjust – and financial support so they can increase their wages.”

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When Al-Abdeen recruits staff, he finds they tend to leave after a few months to work for bigger employers, such as hotel chains, which can afford to pay more. “They finish their training and jump ship to another job that pays an extra 20p an hour,” he says. “We’re used to spending all this time and money training staff and we can’t guarantee they’ll stay.”

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All this means there is even more work left behind for those who remain. “When you’re short-staffed, the staff get stressed out, because they’re working more than they should,” says Al-Abdeen. “It’s hard to keep morale up. It’s like a chain reaction. It’s terrible.” Everyone has been working extra-long hours to compensate.

Inevitably, customer service is affected. “The most frustrating thing is how it affects our service,” he says. “We’re trying our best not to, but there’s not much you can do. We’ve won multiple awards and I think we’re destroying what we’ve achieved. I don’t blame customers for getting annoyed. They’ve paid their money. They have the right to be upset if we’re delayed or the service isn’t up to scratch.”

Al-Abdeen is reserved in his criticism of the government. “They did well for businesses, with Covid,” he says. “But the problem of Brexit has been ignored. I think we need to face the problem and find a solution. We have to allow EU workers to come back and apply for these jobs that, for whatever reason, are not attractive to local jobseekers.”