ME hotel in London has sacked waiter Robert Czegely for handing out trade union leaflets, what they call “gross misconduct”. Robert is a member of the Unite union’s hotel workers’ branch.
He worked in the hotel’s STK restaurant until he was fired on Saturday of last week.
The Melia Hotel group, which owns ME, is one of the largest hotel groups in the world, with over 350 hotels in 40 countries.
Robert said, “They went through my locker, went through my stuff and took all my flyers. Security guards walked onto the restaurant floor and pulled me off in the middle of service on the busiest night of the week.”
Robert had taken union leaflets into work to hand out as part of a long-running campaign for better conditions at work. Almost half of the workers at the restaurant had joined Unite after months of building the union.
The central aim of the campaign was to make management distribute the service charge evenly. It is put into a central pot using a Tronc system (see below) and then distributed among workers by a manager.
“We started asking management questions about where the money was going, to give us some numbers,” said Robert, “After about half a year we’d had enough. We found out about Unite and joined the union.”
Robert told Socialist Worker that management at STK had been paying themselves minimum wage and then using the service charge to top up their wages to their full salaries. Some are paid as much as £50,000.
On top of this, workers were told that the company itself actually keeps some of the cash in order to re-invest in future sites.
Workers are paid minimum wage, this is then ‘topped up’ with money from the service charge.
“When we had a protest outside the hotel one day, management decided to take the service charge off completely,” said Robert, “That meant that people were working for minimum wage and hadn’t even been told.”
After this, management started calling people in one by one and asking if they were union members.
Managers told them, “you should be ashamed of yourself, you’ve stabbed us in the back.”
One union activist was targeted and had her hours cut by 75 percent. “After four months she got the money back she lost because of our campaign,” said Robert.
Under pressure, business secretary Sajid Javid has been forced to launch an inquiry into tipping in the catering industry, which reported its findings last month.
The report offers no concrete solutions to the uneven way workers are treated across the industry.
It suggests that workers should be paid all the tips that customers pay but does nothing about other disgusting catering industry practices. For instance, in some restaurants waiters are charged money to work a section, which they can make back through getting tips.
Robert said, “It’s only because of union activity that he’s started to take the whole issue more seriously.”
Most of the companies that have changed their policies have been targeted by the fair tips campaign.
The only guarantee workers have is that where we are organised, we can win.
What is Tronc?
A Tronc is a system for centralising and then distributing tips that have been collected through customers paying a service charge on their bill rather than a cash tip. It is organised by one person, almost always a manager.
Because the service charge appears on a bill it counts as a ‘compulsory’ charge and appears on pay slips as taxable income. There is no way for workers to know which part of their pay comes from Tronc and which is paid directly from the company.
Neither the employer nor workers are liable to pay National Insurance Contributions on money received through the scheme.
This effectively means a 26 percent reduction in tax for managers using the Tronc scam at ME. It also means that it’s in employers’ interests to pay as little as possible in actual wages and to make up as much pay as they can from the service charge.
But several high street chains and restaurants have started to cave in over their tipping practice after a sustained campaign by workers and their supporters.