Earlier this week, Unite helped uncover an all-too common practice in the restaurant industry at exclusive restaurant chain the Ivy Collection – management charging customers “service charges” that are virtually completely withheld from staff, most of whom earn little more than the minimum wage.
Today, UNITElive hears from James*, a kitchen staff member at one of the Ivy Collection restaurants, who tells us just what it’s like to work at a fine dining establishment oozing profits but whose workers struggle to make ends meet.
James has been working at the restaurant for just under a year on a part-time contract but in practice he works full-time hours.
“It’s not uncommon for me to work 48 hours a week,” he explains. “We’re all on the minimum wage and then we earn up to £1.30 an hour in what they call commission but this is still a flat rate — it doesn’t vary based on sales or anything like that.”
Despite working such long hours, James typically takes home only about £1,300 a month after tax. Living in London, he says, is nearly impossible.
“I’m grateful that I’m not, for example, struggling to eat, but you can forget about having any sort of social life. I go out and spend time with friends maybe once a month at the very most,” he notes. “I’ve been on the waiting list for a council flat for the last five years – it’s impossible to get one so I’ve pretty much given up.”
The gruelling hours and little money they earn means that James and his colleagues are stuck in a twilight zone in which, he says, they are always either “working, sleeping, or tired — there’s no time or money for anything else.”
In addition to the long hours, the intensity of the job can be overwhelming.
“When we do 13 to 14 hour days, it’s not like we’re standing around — it’s always go, go, go. People are constantly shouting at each other and it’s not uncommon for fights to break out in the kitchen. There’s also no sympathy for you if you can’t keep up. I’ve been ill for the past four days and I haven’t slept more than 1 or 2 hours a night for the past several nights but you’re just expected to carry on.”
Besides, James notes, he can’t afford to be sick.
“I work full-time hours but I’m technically on a part-time contract so I only get part-time sick pay — no matter how bad I feel I just have to keep going to make ends meet.”
Despite all the pressure, James says he gets along really well with his immediate bosses. “It’s just the management at the very top who insist on not paying us properly. Knowing that the service charge doesn’t go to us is deeply unfair for both customers and staff.”
He believes most customers don’t realise that the 12.5 per cent service charge levied on all bills don’t go to staff.
“We work at a really nice restaurant with good food and we try our best to offer impeccable service and the setting itself is very nice — customers who come here definitely have money so when they see the service charge they don’t blink. They think they’d look really cheap if they asked to remove it so most of them don’t ask any questions.
“It’s really frustrating to know that the customers are getting ripped off and the service charge is going into some big black hole while we work so hard for so little — and then you see that the restaurant group is planning on expanding with new restaurants popping up everywhere and their profits are massive and growing.”
Unfair and murky tipping practices are only part of the problem in the hospitality industry, which is rife with abuse and job insecurity, James notes.
‘Nothing short of sociopathic’
“I’m lucky to have really great management where I work now but that wasn’t the case at a job I had as a kitchen porter at a gastro pub – the management there were nothing short of sociopathic.
“I was on a zero hours’ contract but they were mostly employing me full-time,” James recalls. “Then without giving me any notice whatsoever they took away all my hours. I couldn’t say anything – I had no choice.
“People might say ‘oh, well you only make and serve food, how hard can it be?’ but people don’t realise that working in restaurants can take years off your life. It can be just as physically demanding as construction but in construction at least you get a full night’s sleep. In our industry, it’s normal if you get 3-4 hours a night. We deserve to be rightfully compensated.”
It was after his experience as a kitchen porter that James decided to join Unite.
“I knew that working in an industry like this you need someone to fight your corner. The union is able to look at your contract and help you decipher all the legal jargon. When you have a problem at work, you’ll have a rep there to support you. Until people stand up together — and joining a union is the best way to do that — nothing will change.
Above all, James believes restaurants will only change their ways if they’re forced to.
“We need a change in legislation,” he argues. “If there’s nothing in the law that says they have to give the service charge to staff, then they’re not going to do it – it’s as simple as that. This is especially the case when every other restaurant is doing the same thing. Why would you drop a policy if everyone else is doing it?”
Unite too believes that a change in legislation is needed. Help bring about that change by signing our petition here, which calls on the government to stop hospitality bosses pinching tips from staff and to publish its consultation on tipping practices. The consultation is now a full eight months overdue – we demand action now.
*Named changed to protect privacy.