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Tipping the balance

Unite’s fair tips campaign powers on
Duncan Milligan, Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

Unite’s fair tips campaign has roared on all summer and been hailed by the Guardian as ‘impressive’. There have been key victories, but the work’s not over yet.

It’s rare for a union campaign to feature so much on news agenda’s. But Unite’s Fair Tips campaign to stop restaurants skimming off some of the tips given to waiters by customers has hit the headlines.

It put the spotlight on those employers ripping off low paid staff and hoodwinking their customers. It was the second try by many of the big rip off restaurant chains at taking a bite out of the tips given to waiters by customers.

In 2009 Gordon Brown’s Labour Government plugged a loophole which allowed restaurants to take tips into account when it came to paying the minimum wage. It has caused outrage among customers when Unite highlighted the restaurants that were doing it and forced a change in the law.

But the rip off restaurants found new ways of creaming off tips given to low paid waiting staff by customers. Some charged an admin fee on tips left when debit and credit were used to pay– Pizza Express took 8% – while others reportedly used the money to fund staff training.


On the campaign trail
So this summer Unite went back on the campaign trail. On 21 May – National Waiters’ Day – Unite launched its latest campaign with the first of many protests outside Pizza Express in London’s Leicester Square.

“Throughout the summer, the union’s activists did a sterling job, taking the message direct to customers and staff alike”, Unite’s Chantal Chegrinec who worked on the campaign told UNITELive. “We went into Pizza Express branches to speak to waiting staff, followed up with weekly protests, handed out hundreds of flyers with customers given a ‘scrap the admin fee’ postcard to leave with their cash tips.


“The message was simple — ‘stop pinching staff tips’ — with customers urged to tip in cash until the chain axed its unfair fee. It hit a nerve with customers.”


In July the campaign went online with the launch of a TUC petition calling on Pizza Express chief executive Richard Hodgson to scrap the 8% admin fee the company skimmed off of tips. It spread like wildfire on social media – Unite targeted the company’s twitter account, tweeting @PizzaExpress on a near daily basis, sticking to our simple message – scrap the admin fee. The public joined in.


Tipping point

Chantal Chegrinec says in the campaign went truly turbocharged after the Independent published the first of many pieces on tipping, quoting Unite’s secret Pizza Express worker.


“From that point on, tipping was in the headlines in all major newspapers, on television and the radio on an almost daily basis” she said. “We had reached the tipping point on tipping.”



“Unite regional officer Dave Turnbull sat on the sofa with Eamon and Ruth on This Morning, and spoke on the radio and to journalists in key regional broadcast and print media,” Chegrinec added. “It even forced the Business Secretary Sajid Javid to act when he announced an investigation into abuse of tipping.”


This highlights an old campaigning truth – ministers don’t acknowledge a problem until they start reading it in their morning news clipping service. Like them or loathe them, the mainstream media are important in delivering a campaign’s message.


In August, Unite stepped it up a notch with its first ‘meal of justice’. This is when protesters went into a restaurant, enjoyed a meal and when the bill came, one person stood up and told customers about the admin fee while the others handed out postcards.


Customers responded with spontaneous applause.


So Why did this campaign hit a nerve?



“Because customers were rightly outraged to discover that the tips they leave to show their appreciation to the (minimum-waged) staff that served them were being creamed off by profitable restaurant chains – many of which are owned by off-shore private equity firms” said Chegrinec. “Not surprisingly it left a bad taste in most people’s mouths.”



Rapid impact

Four massive restaurant chains – Zizzi, Ask, Pizza Express, and Giraffe – have already seen sense and stopped the ‘admin fee’ rip off. Now, Unite will turn its attention to the other restaurants still not playing fair on tips. Because as we’ve seen there are still too many restaurants taking a slice of staff tips including Cote, Las Iguanas, Café Rouge, Belgo and Bella Italia to name a few.


Regional officer Dave Turnbull knows the campaign has had a rapid impact by shining the spotlight on bad practice. He sees the issue off clamping down on the rip off restaurants is a marathon and not sprint.


“The campaign really took off because it put the spotlight on restaurants taking a slice out of the tips left to low paid workers,” he said. “When a customer leaves a tip we all know who they are leaving it to, so there was a real sense of unfairness to waiting staff and hoodwinking of customers who thought their waiter was getting all of the tip they left.


“Many of the big chains had been using tips to subsidise minimum wage jobs and we closed that loophole in 2009. We did this by putting the spotlight on those employers who were profiting from bad practices when it came to tips left by customers to waiting staff.

“All the issues we are exposing now we exposed then. The employers signed up to a voluntary code of practice. Although we were not confident that was the best way we supported it subject to it being reviewed within a year.


“In 2010 the coalition Government came in and would not honour the review,” Turnbull added. “In 2011 we took a delegation to Ed Davey when he was the relevant business and employment minister. He promised a review and then did nothing.”


While the new business secretary Sajid Javid has now also promised a review, Dave Turnbull is a touch sceptical, give his Department’s track record.


“Javid’s department has known about these problems for five years and refused to act,” he said. “All he is offering is a new Code of Practice which put a ceiling on the fee that restaurants can take from tips given to waiting staff.


“We’re not convinced by that. All it does is legitimise bad practice by employers in ripping off low paid staff. We’ll be working with good employers to try and stop that.”


Unite also sees the benefit from a campaign raising the possibility of getting a better unionised workforce, the only real guarantee of locking in a resolution that will stand the test of time.



“We’ll be following up on the contacts we’ve made throughout the campaign to help unionise the workforce and lock in any gains we can make for low paid workers on this issue,”  said Turnbull.


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