The most feared worker

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By Tang Li

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About a year ago, I became a part-time waiter so as to supplement my income from my freelance work. It gave me an insight into the world of blue collar work and the role that blue collar workers play in driving the economy.

More importantly, beyond the chef and the service staff, I found out that that it is the unseen worker in the kitchen whom the restaurant owner fears the most.

Enter the dish washer, the kitchen kingmaker.

Washing dishes in a restaurant is back-breaking. Although most restaurants have a machine to do the washing, it still takes a human being to load the machine and to ensure nothing gets in the way of ensuring the plates get cleaned properly (which is not as easy as it sounds when you consider the amount of food that gets left over on a plate)

Nobody misses the dishwasher until he or she doesn’t show up for work. The restaurant’s operation gets jammed. Dirty dishes pile up. The flow of plates between the kitchen and floor gets jammed. Kitchen staff end up getting pulled away from their job of cooking to washing dishes. In short, the already stressful situation of managing basic restaurant operations turns into a nightmare.

How do restaurants cope without the dishwasher? As mentioned, the kitchen staff double up and do the dishes. Even the restaurant owner has to chip in and do dishes. This isn’t exactly the best of situations for a restaurant that expects to be filled with customers.

It is a job nobody wants. A year ago Sakae Sushi made the news for offering $3,000 a month for dishwashers and still there were no takers. The restaurant I work for has had a similar issue. I tried to introduce a friend to the job. It was paying a good $600 a month more than what he was getting. Then at the last minute he decided to stick with his old job. Despite throwing money at the job, why aren’t people taking it up?

The common complaint is that hours are long and the job is physically demanding. My friend’s reason for rejecting the offer was the fear of missing the last bus home.

So, what can bosses do? In terms of the job scope, there’s probably very little that can actually be done. The job requirements are basic – dishes need to be placed into the dishwasher and washed. Nothing can change that.

However, one should probably look at what one can do around the job. The most obvious is transport. I’ve had colleagues mention that they had to leave because they were worried about not being able to catch the last bus. If restaurants could organise a transport service of sorts, it would eliminate one of the key reasons for not taking the job. I take my friend who rejected the job as an example – one of his key objections was the fact that he lives in Boon Lay and the job is in Katong – the other side of the island. If his transport worries were taken out of the equation, there would be one less objection to taking a job that was paying him more.

Another probable solution is probably to look at splitting the job. The job on its own is demanding and adding the long hours makes it even less appealing. So, instead of looking for one person to work a 12-hour day for six days a week, one could look at giving the job to two people – one for the afternoon and another for the dinner shift. Singapore has a growing number of retirees who are looking for ways to either supplement their income or keep busy. Many of these retirees would consider doing something for a few hours a day instead of working full day shift. Why not tap on this market?