Opinion: many in the sector would do well to extend the hospitality they claim to offer customers to their own employees

You may have seen coverage in the media recently of a new bill proposing to make it illegal for employer to withhold tips from staff. You may indeed question the need for such a bill. Surely tips offered by customers as a gesture of appreciation for services rendered go to their intended recipient? It seems not

I have spent over 20 years teaching employment relations to thousands of students at NUI Galway. We study the nature of the relationship between workers and employers, a relationship which many of my charges are familiar with from experience. We explore problems and challenges that arise in the relationship and how they can be addressed. A starting premise of my teaching is that the employment relationship is an imbalanced power relationship. While that is a fact and not necessarily a problem, there are times when workers need to protect themselves from abuses of such power.

From RTÉ Radio 1, Leanne McDowell discusses her case in 2013

My interest in working conditions in the hospitality sector was sparked by hearing a radio interview with Leanne McDowell, a chef who had been fired after taking her second ever sick day during years of apparently loyal service to her employer. She pursued justice through the Employment Appeals Tribunal and was awarded €50,000 in compensation in 2011, but had not received a single euro of that award by the time of the interview in 2013. I was shocked and fascinated by the story and have shared the podcast with my students ever since as valuable and valued learning material. 

Fast forward to 2017 when two young women, working in the hospitality sector in Galway, came forward to talk about abuses they had experienced or witnessed at work. Driving them was the belief that something must be done. They reached out to a local senator, who reached out to others, including myself.

Before long, a grassroots campaign was underway with hospitality workers, student leaders, migrant worker representatives and trade unions. Our vision was (and is) to promote a change of culture in the hospitality sector that ensures all workers are treated with dignity and respect. Our intention was (and is) to design an award for establishments who treat their workers well, to be displayed in parallel with awards for clean kitchens and top class food.

From RTÉ One's Prime Time, Fran McNulty reports on issues around tipping in Irish restaurants

In 2018, we joined forces with One Galway, a collective of trade unions and community groups united over common interests. The hospitality industry plays a huge role in our economy and provides employment opportunities for the diverse community that is Galway and Ireland, including many of the city's 27,000 student population. It is in all our interests to work collectively to promote fair treatment in the sector.

When Sinn Fein senator Paul Gavan proposed the Protections of Employees (Tips) Bill in 2017, it was an obvious fit for our campaign as we had enough evidence to indicate that this issue needed to be regulated. Many of my students had shared their experiences of having tips withheld. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) had also conducted a survey of their members and reported that tips were taken by some employers in part or whole and used to cover walk-outs, till shortages and breakages.

The reaction of our ruling party to this Bill has been disappointing. Despite broad-based multi-party support for the bill, Fine Gael senators and TDs abstained or voted against it at every stage. The Minister for Employment Affairs & Social Protection Regina Doherty proposed an alternative Bill, one that would make it illegal for employers to use tips to supplement wages. But according to existing evidence, this issue is relatively rare and one that would be covered by the Gavan Bill in any case. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sean O'Rourke show, Minister for Employment Affairs & Social Protection Regina Doherty and Sunn Fein senator Paul Gavan discuss legislation to stop restaurant owners taking tips

As an academic, I believe that action should be based on evidence and I am currently working on a project that provides solid independent empirical data on the treatment of employees in the sector. Along with a comprehensive survey (257 respondents), I am conducting interviews with hospitality workers allowing them to share their experience of what it is like to work in the industry.

The emerging findings from this research are, at times, disturbing. Apart from extensive neglect of basic employment rights, many of the workers I am speaking to are experiencing unacceptable ill-treatment and their testimonies (some below) are compelling and unsettling.

43% - No written statement of terms of employment

70% - No additional allowance for Sunday working.

52% - No entitlement to rest breaks.

76% - Suffered verbal abuse sometimes/often

"I'm treated like a horse. It is so hard to work in a place that expects you to do everything"

64% - Suffered psychological abuse sometimes/often

63% - Witnessed or experienced bullying

55% - Witnessed or experienced harassment

"I myself was very badly bullied in my workplace….I was ignored, not given rest breaks, but worst of all his wife would come in with little notes of things she had seen or heard happening, accuse us of them, and make us sign off on the answers we gave……All this from a guy who would not allow me to go home the day my partner had a miscarriage as 'he had nobody to cover me'."

47% - No supportive feedback from manager

23% - No tips or owner/manager keeps a portion of them

47% - Tips distributed through an unfair system

"All tips are given to a Children's Hospital according to managers, but I've never seen any proof of this and it is widely believed to be a lie"

Where ill-treatment was experienced it was usually by someone in a position of power such as the owner, chef or supervisor. Most employees did not report incidents to anyone and the most common reasons were fear, or a belief that nothing would change. 48% felt they have no opportunities for voice at work and very few are members of a trade union.

My intention is to shine a light on current practices and to provide data that will help to make a stronger argument for inside-out hospitality. It struck me that the research participants had a range of wonderfully simple suggestions for how the work environment of the sector could be improved for the benefit of all.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ