Vicky Spratt | Deputy Editor | Monday, 31 August 2015

Young Workers Need Tips To Survive, So Why Are Restaurants Keeping Them?

Young Workers Need Tips To Survive, So Why Are Restaurants Keeping Them?

The Debrief: With news that well-known well-regarded eating establishments are keeping tips or charging workers to get given their tips, what hope do low-paid workers have?

Recently there have been revelations about what actually happens to the service charge in various high-street restaurants. Date night favourite, Côte, for example, was exposed by the Evening Standard for taking the entire service charge it automatically adds to bills instead of giving it to staff in tips. The Observer then reported that even old reliable Pizza Express has been scandalously skimming off 8% of tips paid to them on credit and debit cards. They also reported that waiters at some major restaurant chains are even being forced to ‘pay to work’ on some shifts; at Las Iguanas, the home of affordable frozen margaritas staff are reportedly required to, at the end of their shifts, pay back the company 3% of what they generate on tables.

It’s known – tourist guide known – that American hospitality staff get paid such low wages that customers must tip, knowing it makes up staff’s pay packets. Any visitor to America who forgets to tip will soon realise what a faux-pas they’ve committed.

In the UK, though, it’s not something we really talk about, it’s not part of our culture. So we don’t know whether to tip at all, let alone how much. Perhaps it’s because we have a legally enforced National Minimum Wage, leading us to assume that even those on the lowest hourly wages are doing just fine.

However, it seems the jig is finally up and customers are beginning to question who actually pockets service charges added on at the end of a meal.

Côte, for example, has defended itself by saying that the ‘service charge is used to increase the pay of all restaurant level staff’. Other restaurants justify these policies by saying that it allows them to share tips with all staff – even those who are in the back room doing the washing up.

But when you speak to waiters and waitresses, it seems the reality is that tips taken often seem to a) disappear or b) be used to top up the Minimum Wage companies pay their staff to bring it closer to the so-called ‘Living Wage’.

The Government has introduced a ‘Living Wage’ which is set at £9.15 an hour in London and £7.85 elsewhere, but it’s not actually legally enforceable in the same way that the Minimum Wage is. It’s essentially just a recommendation.

For staff who think they’re getting the 'Living Wage', though, opening a payslip to find it’s the National Minimum wage plus your tips is a bit like when you think you’re buying a pint of ‘Coke’ in the pub and then you realise, after your first disappointed sip, that it’s just brown syrupy water. They can call it Coke… but it’s not.

I spoke to several girls in their twenties working as waitresses for both independent restaurants and major chains, all of whom confirmed that companies need more than a few tips on how to handle… tips.

Claire*, now 28, has worked for an upmarket high street chain as a waitress on and off since she was 19, helping to put her through university. She says that while she can keep cash tips, nobody knows where ‘anything paid on credit or debit cards goes’.

There is also a culture of silence when it comes to this subject, she says: ‘We were verbally told not to discuss where our tips go or how the system works with customers.’ In the wake of revelations about Côte and Pizza Express many customers ask her ‘Will you actually get this?’ she explains. ‘They’ve read the articles. But I can’t tell them. All I can do is pull a face or shake my head because I’ll be in trouble if my manager hears me discussing it.’

Why not make a stand, I asked her? ‘We don’t question it because the nature of waitressing is that we are completely replaceable. Also, it’s just as bad in other restaurants so what would be the point of quitting?’

It’s not just big high-street chains that are at it, though. Dave*, the former manager of another London-based chain which ‘makes its whole thing about being cool and hip with friendly, attractive tattooed staff’ tells me that he will ‘only ever tip in cash now’ and ‘asks to have the service charge taken off’. When he became a manager, he realised that he, like his staff, was on minimum wage, but that when you got promoted ‘the percentage of the service charge allotted to you went up, this was what made up my pay rise.’ His pay increase was being subsidised by other people’s tips.

You might think an independently-owned country pub outside of London would be a little less mercenary, but don’t be fooled into thinking their employment ethics mirror the free-range menu options.

Lydia*, a 22-year-old graduate, who is currently waitressing in one such pub after finishing her degree, eventually left her job because she was convinced her manager was pocketing tips. ‘We were supposed to put our tips in a pot to be distributed by the manager at the end of every shift’, she says, ‘to make sure that everyone, the kitchen porter, pot washer and chefs all got some’. Sounds about right, you might think. ‘But, what we always ended up with was significantly less than what we felt we’d earned. We were convinced our manager was taking the bulk of our tips for himself. None of us could prove it though so in the end we just stopped handing our tips in to be shared.’

So, even if it seems tips are collected to be distributed ‘fairly’ on top of pay, there’s no guarantee it’s actually happening.

Dave Turnbull, Hospitality Sector Officer for Unite the Union, tells The Debrief ‘many people get their first taste of working life waiting tables’ and this is a really important issue. He points out that very few young people stick with hospitality. Along with long hours and low pay, ‘employers skimming off your tips is enough to make most people look elsewhere for a career.’ Every year 350,000 people leave the industry and never return.

Aside from this, anyone who’s ever served behind a bar or waited tables, as many of us have, will know that it’s not exactly easy. As Jane*, a 19-year-old waitress from Scotland says ‘tipping is nice because it is the confirmation that you’ve done a good job. Especially if it’s busy and you get yelled at a lot for things that aren’t your fault. You, as a waitress, are the person that links the kitchen, the waiting staff and the customer together so you’re the fall guy if something goes wrong, as it so often does.’

Tips are important because they’re seen as a reflection of a job well done. Plus, they’re the upside to a sorry situation which sees young waiting staff perved on by the sorts old enough to cough up for a sit-down meal (and old enough to know better): ‘There have been men who will be asking me questions about the menu quite normally and then suddenly they’ll slip in a question like “What underwear are you wearing?”’ She says she makes a calculated decision when this kind of thing happens ‘I could report them to my manager because it shouldn’t happen but I’ll just smile and think “arsehole” because they’ll tip me.’

The general consensus seems to be that if you’re tipping in cash it’s probably going to the staff, although that’s certainly not always the case. If you’re adding your tip on to your card payment, however, it seems that staff rarely see their tips and, worse, are often being given them as a supplement to an already-low wage.

To all you waiters and waitresses out there though, take heart. Sajid Javid, Business Secretary, told The Debrief: ‘As far as I'm concerned, tips belong to the staff. I'm getting increasingly concerned about the practice of some restaurants, and will be taking a serious look into the issues raised.’

Tips should be a bonus, a reward for doing a good job and not a way for restaurants to bulk up their own profits, nor legitimise paying their staff the bare minimum.

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Tags: Money worries