The Black Death, Labour Shortage, and Hospitality Wages

Can a past pandemic tell us anything about the future of hospitality wages?

During a five or six year period in the mid-1300’s, Black Plague, also known as Black Death or The Great Pestilence, rampaged through the world’s population with a ferocity that makes Covid look like a mild inconvenience.

A bacterial infection mainly transmitted to humans from animals via the fleas they carry, Black Death killed around 80% of the people who contracted it. Doctors of the time had no real understanding of the disease and no way to fight it, and the resulting public health catastrophe is described by the Economic History Association as “the largest demographic disaster in European history”. The death toll was staggering – somewhere between 75M and 200M (records are sketchy because, among other things, a lot of the record-keepers were killed) – and in Europe it was as if Thanos snapped his fingers – fully half the population died.

This brief but intensely traumatic period had a profound effect on society. Proving that human nature has not improved, people from ‘elsewhere’ were subject to persecution because the disease was perceived to be their fault. Art and literature took a morbid turn, with death and suffering becoming the subjects du jour, and of particular interest to this article, the relationship between employer and employee changed dramatically.

A Change in the Balance of Power

As the first plague pustules were appearing on unsuspecting arms in 1347, something like 9 in 10 people worked in agriculture and farming. This was a time of labour surplus, meaning the going rate for work was set by Lords and landowners. However after 5 years of plague, and taking Southern England as an example, half the workforce had died, resulting in a labour shortage. As society recovered from the pandemic, agricultural workers were in a position to demand, and receive, higher rates of pay for their labour. The Economic History Association estimates that “wages in England rose from 12 to 28 percent from the 1340s to the 1350s and 20 to 40 percent from the 1340s to the 1360s.”

The parallels between the post-plague labour market and hospitality’s situation today are obvious – although thankfully we can’t make a direct comparison. The Covid-19 pandemic has created a labour shortage, not because of a horrifying mortality rate, but because 18 months of lockdowns, enforced closure, and furlough, have caused large numbers of hospitality workers to re-evaluate their lives and leave the sector. This, coupled with an outflux of European workers following Brexit, has transformed hospitality into employee’s market, with various bodies and organisations estimating that UK hospitality has lost at least 10% of its workforce, and that sector vacancies sit at 9%, or 188,000 empty roles.

Non-scientific observation of the regional bartender-administered Facebook groups underlines this situation, with the balance of posts shifting from ‘I need a job’ to ‘I need a bartender’. If history repeats itself, which it almost always does, then today’s hospitality Lords and landowners will have to start offering better pay and conditions if they want to recruit workers and continue to make money from their businesses. And given that many potential workers have spent a year in self-reflection, and have re-remembered the joys of sleep and a healthy circadian rhythm, that wage hike may need to be, and should be, considerable.

Higher Wages May Not Mean More Money

Unfortunately, you can’t cherry-pick just the positive lessons from history, you have to listen to its cautionary tales too. While those plague-surviving farm workers enjoyed a brief period of double-helpings-of-turnips high wages, their pandemic had far-reaching economic consequences that began to bite. The very labour shortage responsible for their pay rise caused the cost of grain to increase, and with it the cost of living (the rich always find a way to get it back, don’t they?). Inflation ran out of control, and after that short blip during which the workers were better off, it took about 30 years for the medieval economy to stabilise following the Black Death.

The UK Government borrowed around £300 billion, the largest yearly amount since records began in 1946, to pay for the first year of tackling Covid. The second year, which we are currently in, is forecast to cost a further £200 billion. This debt will have to be recouped via increased taxation and (it’s a Tory government after all) public service cuts. In short, things are going to get more expensive, and may stay that way for a long time, if not 30 years. In this way the Covid pandemic could again mirror the Black Death by enabling higher wages for workers with one hand, and increasing the cost of living with the other.

A Peasant Rebellion

The answer to the question at the top of this page – Can a past pandemic tell us anything about the future of hospitality wages? – is ‘quite possibly’. Covid has created a hospitality labour shortage. This shortage of workers may force employers to pay higher wages, but the wider economic situation could raise the cost of living enough that the real-word impact of those pay rises is mitigated to some degree. It’s probably too early to tell, and a more insightful economic analysis is beyond the purview of this article, and my ability to do maths. However, if we take a final look back at the social impact of the Black Death pandemic, we find something called the Popular Rebellion, which sounds like a lot of fun, so jobs and wages aside, lets hope pandemic history will repeat itself one more time:

The Black Death and Popular Rebellion – The Economic History Association:
“The late medieval popular uprising, a phenomenon with undeniable economic ramifications, is often linked with the demographic, cultural, social, and economic reshuffling caused by the Black Death… The Black Death may indeed have made its greatest contribution to popular rebellion by expanding the peasant’s horizons and fueling a sense of grievance at the pace of change, not at its absence… It seems likely that discontent may have arisen from an unsatisfying pace of improvement of the peasant’s lot.”