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Dublin: 8°C Wednesday 19 January 2022

Opinion: It is time to ban employers from keeping workers' tips

‘A pattern began to emerge: the more sophisticated the operation the more sophisticated the method of syphoning the tips’, writes James Larkin.

James Larkin

I WORKED AS a waiter in three establishments. They were very different from each other, one was a café while another was a fancy restaurant.

They all had one thing in common though – in each workplace, the management employed a different method of dipping into my tips.

When I started to research the issue I was shocked to find out that I had no legal right to my tips.

My first experience as a waiter was in Kildare where I worked in a café that had just opened. The owner had grand ambitions for us and set about creating a friendly and motivated atmosphere amongst the staff.

But we still only earned minimum wage, and due to the setup of the café, tips were low. Worse, we soon discovered that the few tips we did earn weren’t ours.

The owner had decided, on our behalf, that because the tips were so low there was no point in dividing them up between us. Instead, he decided they should be used for staff parties.

The most egregious example of unfair tipping came in my next experience.

I began working in a new restaurant-cum-wine bar in Dublin city centre, where I expected things to be a little bit more professional. They weren’t. 

As soon as I started I was told that 10% of tips were taken for ‘breakages’.

Then after subtracting that 10% the manager would hand out the tips based on a quick (and often incorrect) calculation of hours worked and seniority.

Each evening our tips were significantly smaller than we had expected.

I soon found out that the tips were also being used to balance the cash register if it was down money. Needless to say, if the till was over, the surplus was not placed in the tip jar.

In that restaurant, I estimated that around half of my tips were going back to management.

I was sure that this must be illegal, but then I looked into it and found I’d no recourse – as tips are not currently regulated.

In my third job as a waiter, I started working for an international chain of restaurants.

It was at this stage that a pattern began to emerge: the more sophisticated the operation, the more sophisticated the method of syphoning the tips.

At the beginning, I had a two-hour trial during which I did not receive any of my tips. Then when I got the job I started my training period, during which I also did not get any of the tips I earned. 

Other members of staff told me that they were incentivised to make my training period last for as long as possible so that they would get to keep my tips.

Then when I passed through training, I was told that a percentage of my tips were taken for ‘breakages’.

This practice seems to be the rule rather than the exception. But surely replacing the odd broken plate is a normal cost in a business that uses lots of plates. 

Imagine that in any other workplace – it is the equivalent of telling office staff to throw in a tenner each, because the photocopier is broken. 

From the customers’ perspective too – when someone tips at a restaurant they expect it to go to the waiting staff and not to management or the owners.

We all know that living on minimum wage isn’t easy, especially with the sky-high rents in Dublin. That extra income from tips can make the difference between paying rent at the end of the month or not.

More importantly, there is a feeling of injustice. You worked hard to earn that money, perhaps you were tired that day but you still smiled and made conversation, your extra effort is what brought in the tip. 

Then that money is taken from you, without discussion or consideration, just because it suits those in authority. 

Regulating tips would be a small change, but a just change, and it is one that has gained cross-party support in the UK and Canada.

By giving workers a right to their tips you would empower those earning the least in society, help them pay for necessities and give them a greater sense of control over their lives.

James Larkin is a PhD student who no longer works as a waiter. He is writing in support of The Protection of Employee Tips Bill, which was debated in the Seanad last night and was proposed by Sinn Féin Senator, Paul Gavan. 

The bill, if passed into law, would make it illegal for an employer to withhold or deduct tips from an employee without a lawful excuse. It would also require employers to display their tipping policy to provide transparency as to how the tips are distributed. 

About the author:

James Larkin

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