Battle at the Ivy: Another controversy at the Dublin restaurant

First, a row over tips. Now, it is claimed, a waiter has been dismissed for joining a union

Former Ivy restaurant waitress and Unite member Julia Marciniak says many workers in the service industry can’t survive without tips. Proposed legislation would ban employers from using tips to help pay workers wages.

 

Brendan Ogle calls me Rosa Luxemburg, ” says Julia Marciniak. As a waiter at Dublin’s Ivy restaurant, Marciniak recently found herself in the midst of a media and political storm about what happens to tips at the brasserie and elsewhere. She now faces a more personal battle.

Concerned about conditions and how service charges were handled at the restaurant, Marciniak joined a union. Shortly afterwards she lost her job.

The Unite union this week said it has two members – one of whom is Julia Marciniak – who believe they were dismissed from the Ivy for trade union membership or activity.

Unite’s senior officer Brendan Ogle says it has taken legal advice and will bring cases for unfair dismissal on their behalf. The union is also evaluating further action for breach of payment of wages. The restaurant chose not to comment on an Irish Times query about the dismissals case.

Marciniak – like the Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg Brendan Ogle compares her with – is Polish. A slight 33-year-old, she has lived in Ireland for 11 years, making her a veteran of the hospitality industry. She is nervous now about speaking out to draw attention to the employment conditions of hospitality workers, but she is also fired up with the support she and her colleagues have had – from politicians, activists, media, unions and the public – in exposing hidden practices in some restaurants.

Her experience is typical of many young migrant workers making their way in a foreign country in low-paid, precarious jobs, with a high cost of living and unaffordable rents.

Marciniak has a Polish accent, but speaks English with nuance and use of vernacular. In talking about her work, she comes across as a skilled and hard worker.

Last November Marciniak was just another jobbing waitress. Much has happened since: the revelations about tipping practices at the Ivy, her joining a union, witnessing legislation in the making.

In December The Irish Times reported that new Dublin restaurant the Ivy, on Dawson Street, used the 12.5 per cent service charge it levied on tables in lieu of tips to part-pay contracted wages, and also didn’t distribute card tips to staff.

What the Ivy was doing is absolutely legal, but it is not what customers expect to happen to their service charge or tip. The Ivy, and other chains such as TGI Friday’s and the Hard Rock Cafe (where owners sucked up the 5 per cent service charge on all tables), may be an extreme, but they represent what appears, over months of research, to be common practice by some restaurants.

Most places she or her friends worked had erratic or unclear distribution of tips

Early years Marciniak grew up in Wroclaw, the large city in west Poland, formerly in East Germany. Both her parents are social workers, and her family is well educated. Since the age of 17 she has worked in bars and restaurants. At one point, after a serious incident at work, Marciniak’s colleagues quit in support of her. “I forgot, it was always in me,” she says now, recalling her younger self. She left Poland, aged 24, in 2008, to join her older sister Ilona, who was living in Dublin.

She has worked ever since in hospitality. Her first job was as a waitress in a big city centre hotel. There were often short gaps between shifts, without enough time to sleep; staff received tips, but they were distributed in a way that “didn’t make sense”. She stayed three years: “I was happy to get a job at all. My English was bad, my confidence was bad, and I was afraid of everything.”

Marciniak worked in restaurants for short periods over the following years, which variously involved no contract, no holidays, and very short notice of shifts. Most places she or her friends worked had erratic or unclear distribution of tips; staff did not know how much was left in tips, or on what basis it was divided.

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She was advised “to keep quiet, that I can’t do much”, Marciniak says. She didn’t complain, but just left jobs. Workers’ rights protection doesn’t generally apply until you have been in a job for 12 months, an issue for casual low-paid workers.

Waiting tables at The Bank restaurant on College Green was better in that tips were good, and she stayed four years. Marciniak became sick in 2017 and, without Irish medical insurance, took time off for diagnosis and treatment in Poland. When she subsequently sought to return to work, she was dismissed.

The Ivy restaurant, Dawson Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
The Ivy restaurant, Dawson Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Marciniak took a case to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) over this. The adjudication officer accepted “her manager . . . did terminate the employment in a summary manner. It seems to me this was done in the heat of the moment.”

The WRC awarded Marciniak compensation of €4,200. Other complaints she made to the WRC, including about work hours and discrimination, did not succeed.

Julia has come a long way since she was recruited by the Ivy in July 2018 as part of the Dublin opening team of the high-profile, strikingly decorated 200-seat all-day brasserie. It is part of the British Ivy Collection chain, owned by Caprice Holdings. “I was so excited, and the place was so beautiful.”

Waiters were contracted at €1 or so over the minimum rate, as in many city centre restaurants, to attract good staff. They were told they could keep cash tips after tipping out the kitchen and other staff 20-25 per cent, and that they could also keep 40 per cent of tips on credit cards.

All 12.5 per cent service charges on tables of five-plus went into a “tronc” tip-distribution system to part-pay wages, making up the difference between minimum pay and the staff’s contracted hourly rates. In December the Ivy confirmed to The Irish Times this was how service charges are used.

‘Deplorable greed’

Within a few months there was dissent inside, with management accusing waiters of “deplorable greed” and of asking diners to tip cash. When the expected card tips weren’t paid in November, the story went public.

Since then things appear to have deteriorated at the Ivy. Waiters were banned from handling any payments. The service charge was extended to all tables in April, which means few diners tip on top, as they assume a service charge is a tip, rather than an addition to menu prices to pay basic business costs. There has been a lot of staff turnover.

There are regular protests outside (to the secret satisfaction of staff within, says Marciniak). A few months ago the restaurant bought expensive new blinds, which are now regularly pulled all the way down.

Nothing will ever change if we keep quiet

In the midst of all this, waiters joined a union. Julia and a colleague were the most visibly unionised, and encouraged others to organise. “The whole thing makes me a fighter.”

After all the furore and adverse attention, it appears nothing much has changed with the Ivy “model”; when we asked again this week, it confirmed “the optional, discretionary 12.5 per cent service charge is shared with all staff (except management)”. When asked to clarify if it was still shared by being put into a “tronc” to top up minimum wages to contracted hourly rates, the Ivy declined to comment further.

Now few people tip at the Ivy because they pay service charges instead.

While the Ivy and many other restaurants haven’t changed much, a lot has happened otherwise. Independents4Change TD Joan Collins took on the issue and has been highlighting it for months, organising, with Communities Against Low Pay, regular protests outside the Ivy.

Sinn Féin Senator Paul Gavan’s Private Members’ Bill to give hospitality workers a legal right to their tips and service charges has had cross-party support and passed second stage in the Dáil, though Minister for Employment Affairs Regina Doherty’s use of the “money message” provision seems aimed to kill the legislation.

Marciniak and a colleague have met Doherty. Instead of the Private Members’ Bill, the minister proposes to amend the Payment of Wages Act to prevent the use of “tips and gratuities” to pay wages, and force outlets to display how tips are distributed. Doherty’s plan appears not to give staff an explicit legal right to tips. Crucially, it excludes service charges, which restaurants would still be able to keep.

“She appeared really concerned and empathetic to our situation,” says Marciniak of her meeting with Doherty. “[But] to be honest, straight away I thought that is simply not enough, but I was not really in position to say anything – we asked her for help and can’t exactly say your idea of preventing tip theft is s**t.”

Marciniak is dismayed. “Instead of real laws she will stop the Bill and put up stickers [notices about tips]. I was extremely disappointed with her going against workers and against democracy. I expect her regulation to be very weak.”

In response to the tips furore, the Restaurants Association of Ireland distributed purple notices for restaurants to display: “All tips and gratuities are distributed to staff.” It does not say this is on top of wages.

A joke

Marciniak is scathing. “The purple sticker is a joke. Many places that don’t work out tips fairly put it on the door. It’s a sticker, it means nothing. We don’t need stickers, we need a law. With stickers there is no control over tips, the only benefit is for owners to look good.”

Marciniak sees her future here, and wants to apply for an Irish passport. She feels much more supported with the backing and legal advice of her union. She’s happy with how tips are distributed where she works now, in the Quays restaurant in Temple Bar (it’s very busy and the tips are not as much as the Ivy’s service charges – but she does get them).

She hopes to “contribute to changes in hospitality. It is getting so much attention from [the] public, it can make a difference. We need to get together, unionise, to address problems we face every day. Unions and others are there to help us! We need to know our rights and force employers to respect them.

“I wish people to see my story as a positive. I face the situation with my head up, and actually, my voice matters and people want to listen. Nothing will ever change if we keep quiet.”

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