As Brexit chugs along, the UK continues to prepare for the repercussions of its decision to leave the EU. As we discussed last month, one such ramification is a possible shortage of employees in the hospitality industry. At the time, British sandwich chain Pret a Manger specifically lamented that currently just one in every 50 of its applicants is from the UK. So the company came up with a solution, announcing “Pret’s Big Experience Week” – a chance for 16 to 18-year-olds to spend a week learning what life is like working at Pret a Manger. However, the initiative quickly spawned a Brexit-like backlash when it was revealed these teens wouldn’t be paid – though they would be given free food.
Though spending a week hanging out at a sandwich chain might not sound like the world’s most exciting summer program, Pret a Manger presented the initiative as an opportunity for teens to figure out if the hospitality industry might be right for them. “Participants will get exposure to aspects of our business including food production, customer service, social responsibility (care for the homeless) and financial control,” Andrea Wareham, the brand’s HR Director, wrote in March 20 blog post. “Working in hospitality won’t be for everyone, but I’m confident we could offer great careers to many more Brits than we do today.” According to the Guardian, Pret suggested that anyone who took part in the program would be able to apply for a permanent role if they wanted. However, the company also said participants wouldn’t be paid for the program itself, though they wouldn’t go hungry either – getting free food throughout the week.
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However, critics wondered why these teens weren’t being paid immediately. “The best kind of experience is hands-on experience where it is really clear that the young worker has set hours and responsibilities and is doing proper work. By law, if that’s the case they should be paid,” Tanya de Grunwald of Graduate Fog, a campaigner for fair internships, told the Guardian. “If Pret really wants to impress this age group they should be paying.” As could be expected, Twitter was also fertile ground for criticism.
Eventually, Wareham had to amend her original blog post, saying the company had changed its no-pay policy. “I would like to reassure customers who may have read that Pret was going to ‘pay teenagers in sandwiches for work’ that this was not the case,” she wrote, taking the critiques head-on. “It was never intended that participants would be working or interning for us. Instead they will be shadowing our teams for a week to learn about our business. It is our hope that this will encourage them to consider a career at Pret or in hospitality generally.”
Still, the company chose to kowtow to the criticism. “Having heard how passionately people feel about the initiative, I can confirm that we will be paying all participants Pret’s starting hourly rate and will of course be providing free food as well,” she continued.