30. Sep, 2015

We are Humans not Automatons

29/09/2015

I am a waiter at a busy Le Pain Quotidien bakery and restaurant in central London. There are many things I like about my job – it is skilful, fast, demands a complex range of mental and emotional skills, and I really like my co-workers and many of the regular customers I serve.

However, seven years as a waiter with LPQ have shown me a lot about how companies grow, how they flourish into profit making international brands, and yet how that growth never seems to be reflected in the pay packets or the working conditions of the people responsible for that growth.

I and most of my co-workers are paid the minimum wage, topped up at the discretion of the store managers with a small proportion of the “service charge”. Of that 12.5% discretionary service charge, the company takes a 10% administration fee and spends 50% on various unspecified costs (we have struggled to get a straight answer as to what these costs are, but we think they include things like staff training). The remaining 40% is supposed to find its way into staff pay packets. We are clearly not meant to count on getting any of the service charge, as it is granted or denied at the whim of the store manager. We have heard rumours from friends who have been promoted that the service charge is used for things like lavish management dinners on Thames dining boats. Whether that’s the case or not, I can’t imagine most customers expect their money goes so far from the pay packets of the people who served them. 

Another standard practice at LPQ is the unlawful deduction of wages. Recently a waiter in my branch discovered that a customer had paid with a counterfeit £20 note. It was an expert fake and she did not notice until the end of her shift. She was sent to the nearest cash point and made to replace the counterfeit £20 with her own money. That would have been almost half of her pay for the day.

I have seen it happen hundreds of times at LPQ, that customers have run off without paying, that people have pulled change scams on retailers, that mistakes are caused by understaffing or under-training. Almost always these situations result in waiters and retailers paying out of their own pocket, usually in the form of illegal on-the-spot fines. LPQ seems to directly ignore the small protection that the law provides us against deductions like this, wagering that none of us can afford the tribunal costs to challenge them.

Many of my co-workers, well into their thirties, share not houses or flats, but rooms with several other adults. They routinely work sixty hour weeks. On the pay that we receive it is a struggle to live in London, it is not easy to budget so that you have enough money to support yourself, let alone a family. This is even before wage deductions and service charge theft. When we loose £20 to LPQ, it might not seem a huge amount, but it is experienced by minimum wage workers as a serious loss. It may well mean that we can’t pay our full rent this month.

This combination of low pay and frequent wage deductions or fines, makes LPQ staff among the most precarious in the industry. Compounding this, most of us are on ‘full-time’ contracts that only guarantee ten hours per week. They are all but zero-hour contracts. We often don’t know how many hours we have or when we have them until late on Sunday evening. At the moment my branch has six vacancies so we are understaffed. People are working six or seven days a week, often having to take double shifts. Because most kitchen staff are pressured into signing away their right not to work so many hours when they apply for the job, no one was surprised when a kitchen worker worked sixteen days in a row last month. This is normal when we are understaffed. Then again, last summer we were not particularly busy. We saw our hours almost halved with no warning or consultation.

Le Pain Quotidien prides itself on its commitment to the ethical and environmentally friendly sourcing of ingredients – their employment practices are directly contrary to this wholesome branding. Having been waiting tables for several years, I am sure that up in head office they justify their nasty approach to their staff as an industry norm. But to argue that a profit making company cannot treat the staff that generate that profit with basic respect through fair wages and job security, because others don’t – that argument does not hold when you remember you are employing humans not automatons.