Heart Unions Week: UniteLive looks back at historic fair tips victory in the Republic of Ireland
December 1 2022 will be the day that hundreds of thousands of hospitality workers in the Republic of Ireland will remember – it’s the day that they’ve reclaimed what’s rightfully theirs.
Up until December 1st last year, workers in Ireland’s hotels, restaurants and other establishments where tipping is customary, had long been the victims of theft on a grand scale.
But thanks in large part to Unite, it is now illegal for employers to keep tips left for staff, whether that’s cash or card tips, or service charges.
Before, workers had no legal claim to any tips – and unscrupulous employers would often pinch card tips and service charges. They’d shamelessly use these gratuities left by well-meaning but unsuspecting customers to help pay staff’s contractual wages or other business expenses.
The prestigious Ivy Restaurant in Dublin was the exemplar of these outrageous tipping practices. Unite hospitality and tourism co-ordinator Julia Marciniak, who played a central role in lobbying for Ireland’s new tipping laws, was once a waitress at the Ivy. She saw first-hand how tips were stolen from staff before their very eyes.
“Unless we got our tips in cash, we couldn’t see where the money left as card tips and service charges was going,” she told UniteLive.
“You’d receive your pay slip with your contractual wages listed which were hardly above the minimum wage, then they’d give us this nonsense about a bonus and other lines in your pay slip that didn’t make any sense,” she added. “The Ivy is a very expensive restaurant so considering how little our take home pay was, it didn’t add up at all.”
As the Irish Times highlighted in 2018, when Julia worked at the restaurant, the Ivy used a labyrinthine system to effectively funnel card tips and service charges away from staff.
Workers were never clear how tips were distributed – one day management would say one thing, and then something entirely different the next.
After workers realised they were being swindled, Julia and many of her colleagues joined Unite. That’s when they collectively ramped up the pressure on the Ivy by staging protests and placing tipping abuses front and centre in the media spotlight.
‘We set out to find the truth’
But it soon became clear that what was happening at the Ivy was a only a symptom of a much wider disease – tipping exploitation runs rampant in the Republic, just as it does in the UK.
Julia began working for Unite, and the union conducted research on the Republic of Ireland’s hospitality sector through a survey of hundreds of hospitality workers.
“When I appeared in the media, I was tired of being dismissed by people saying that my experience at the Ivy or other individual workers’ experiences was only anecdotal evidence,” Julia said. “So we set out to find the truth.”
And the truth was shocking – only 8 per cent of those surveyed said they received the service charge, with 15 per cent reporting that they didn’t know where the service charge went.
With card tips, the picture was similarly bleak. More than one in three of those polled said they didn’t receive card tips at all, with an additional 20 per cent saying management had control of card tips so they weren’t sure whether or not they received them.
And even with cash tips – a pool of tips that many customers may think is the sacrosanct property of workers – a significant proportion of staff missed out. The survey found that more than one in four workers did not receive cash tips, with over 16 per cent reporting they didn’t know.
Unite’s research complemented previous research carried out by Dr Deirdre Curran of the University of Galway business school, which likewise found widespread tipping abuses.
Unite’s fight for strong legislation
Through this research, a clear picture had emerged of an endemic system of tipping exploitation, and it became apparent that public pressure on individual restaurants alone wasn’t going to be enough.
Back in 2017, a Bill to right the wrongs of tipping practices in the Republic of Ireland was proposed and had gained widespread political support, but it didn’t get through.
Then, at the height of the pandemic, Tánaiste and Minister for employment Leo Varadkar revived proposed legislation under the Payment of Wages (Amendment) (Tips and Gratuities) Bill.
“During the pandemic and lockdowns there was a renewed public awareness of low wages, and of the lack of effective workers’ rights – it started to become part of a national conservation,” Julia told UniteLive. “It really felt like a watershed moment.”
While Varadkar’s initial Bill had much to commend it, there were notable holes in the legislation, especially on the issue of service charges, which weren’t included in the Bill.
When the draft legislation was published, Julia wrote an opinion piece in Look Left magazine, in which, she said, “I tore the draft legislation to shreds. I highlighted every single bad thing in the legislation. The Bill just wasn’t strong enough.”
And on the same day that the opinion piece was published, that’s when Julia received a written response from Leo Varadkar’s office, with whom Unite had been seeking an appointment.
“I was personally asked to meet with Leo Varadkar – I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
Julia and Unite hospitality branch secretary Karen Doyle attended the meeting together with Unite officials and officials from Varadkar’s office. They made the case for a stronger Bill, one that included service charge protection.
After the meeting, Unite helped draft amendments which were incorporated into the new Bill that was passed earlier last year.
‘Huge difference’ for workers
Under the legislation that went into effect in December, employers cannot take tips from workers or use them to pay staff wages. Credit charges are deemed to be tips and again cannot be taken from workers.
Employers must consult with staff on the distribution of electronic tips, which must be distributed fairly and transparently. Bosses will be obliged to give staff a statement of tips received over a specific period of time, and how much of this was specifically distributed to each individual worker.
All establishments are also now legally obligated to clearly and publicly post a notice visible to customers that outlines how, exactly, cash and card tips are distributed among staff.
“I’m very proud of the work we did to make tips legislation a reality,” Julia said. “This all started with just a handful of workers, mostly migrant workers, and now thanks to our collective efforts through our union Unite, we’ve made a huge difference for hundreds of thousands of people in this country, and millions more in the years to come.”
Julia said that while the new law is not perfect, “it still represents massive progress”.
“It’s also such an important time of year for workers in hospitality because they are coming up to the very quiet months of January, February and March, when they don’t earn as much in tips and also don’t get as many hours,” she explained.
“At a time when the cost of living is soaring, especially in cities like Dublin where it’s a huge struggle for low-waged workers to live affordably, this legislation could not have come into effect at a better time.”
Julia added that the legislation is boon, too, for customers, who she said, were previously “being robbed”.
“Our fight was as much for our customers who we serve as for workers. Customers were leaving tips in good faith, believing that they were going to staff when they weren’t. Now customers have that peace of mind knowing that if they leave a tip, they know exactly where that tip will go.”
Julia urged all workers, especially in hospitality, to join Unite to make their voices heard.
“The historic changes we’ve made happened because of our members and because of the support we got from Unite,” she said. “If I were just a regular worker who, say, wrote to Leo Varadkar I would not have been listened to. But because I had the backing of Unite, that’s what made the difference.
“I never thought our fight would go this far – that we would make so much progress. But it just shows that if we stand up collectively – if we make enough noise – then we can change things for the better.”
Unite Ireland regional secretary Jackie Pollock hailed last year’s historic achievement for workers in the Republic of Ireland.
“I’m proud of the role Unite played in helping to secure this legislation,” he said. “But as trade unionists we know that legislation by itself is not enough: it takes workers coming together, organising collectively in a union and building power in the workplace, to ensure that the legislation is enforced.”
By Hajera Blagg