Behind Closed Kitchen Doors
Updated: Jul 30, 2019
“I trained for two weeks, didn’t earn a cent, and didn’t get the job.”
“The owner refused to pay me any of the tips I earned during my shift.”
“The manager made her stand on a chair in front of all the waiters and asked her if she was a virgin.”
These are some of the comments made in response to a Times Select Facebook request about South Africans’ experiences as waiters.
And according to Cape Town labour lawyer Michael Bagraim, they are typical of many of the cases he handles on behalf of clients.
The Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa, which represents the hotel and restaurant sector, says it deplores such practices.
But anecdotal evidence suggests they remain widespread in an industry that has long been plagued by allegations that it mistreats waiting staff.
“I trained at a restaurant for two weeks. Every training shift consisted of long hours of non-stop work. I had to write a test at the end of training,” said one waitress who wanted to remain anonymous.
“I passed the test, but received a call from the manager who informed me that they no longer required my services. I was not able to get a reason why. I felt exploited and frustrated at the complete waste of time.”
Cape Peninsula University of Technology student and part-time waitress Amber Barnett said: “The owner of the restaurant I was working at refused to pay me and my co-worker any of the tips we earned during our shift. Instead, he kept it for himself.”
A mother said her daughter’s three weeks of unpaid “training”, which involved “hectic hours”, ended with the episode in which she was humiliated about her sex life.
“I called the head office several times but could get no further than the receptionist,” said the mother.
Bagraim said long periods of unpaid training were a form of slave labour. “The training is not normally adequate and is often just another form of abuse. Many restaurateurs believe that by calling the first few months as training they don’t need to pay the waiter,” he said.
If waiters ended up with a job, they normally earned the minimum wage. “Employers still see the job as a waiter as being one of no skills and adding no value to the operation. Therefore they believe it is appropriate to pay the minimum wage,” said Bagraim.
“It should also be known that many owners pool the tips and deduct the credit card costs and other costs that might have been incurred in the restaurant. Once again this is illegal.”
The lawyer said waiting staff were typically undervalued, even though “a good waiter is the representation to the outside world of the restaurant – sometimes more than the chef”.
He added: “Furthermore, any problems that occur in the restaurant are normally dumped on the waiter, who is the only contact between the customer and the business.”
In some cases, restaurants make waiters supply their own uniforms and bottle-openers, but Bagraim said this was also illegal.
“There are unions active in the restaurant and hotel industry but more often than not the unions are not present in the smaller operations and many of the union shop steward do not know the law,” he said.
“Often waiters don’t want to complain for fear of losing their jobs.”
Fedhasa chair Jeff Rosenberg said the hospitality industry was demanding and staff often worked long hours.
However, practices such as lengthy periods of unpaid training and waiters being required to pay for breakages, even when nothing had been broken on a shift, were “utterly unacceptable”.
Rosenberg added: “There are different systems that can be used in assigning tips, such as where waiters pool their tips and these are shared among all staff at the end of the month to create a culture of fairness, which also may include the kitchen staff.
“Should a staff member feel dissatisfied they can take up their concerns through their internal processes within their organisation. Following this, if they are still not satisfied, then they are able to pursue options via the department of labour and the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration.”
Too much on their plates
Being a waiter is one of the most stressful jobs, even outscoring brain surgery, according to research at Southern Medical University in China.
Almost 140,000 people were followed and analysed for up to seven years, and the researchers said waiters were particularly stressed because their job was demanding at the same time as offering them low levels of control.