Irish stew: Experiences of a waitress in Germany, 2002

This was written to share the experience of one waitress with others. We often work in small places for short times, but if we all stand together we have a chance to fight back against the crap we get at work. This starts with sharing what is going on...

3/2002

There are lots of us working in insecure, part time, cash-in-hand service and catering jobs. We are often fairly isolated. We all put up with similar stuff, but it seems like each thing is a one-off incident. Well it's not... Here is one story and some thoughts.

Alice's restaurant
When I moved to Germany, not able to speak German at all, my choices of employment were pretty limited. I tried all the temporary agencies, but no luck. The only place I could work speaking English was the Irish pub. There the boss was Irish and all the work took place in English. The boss knew that was the only place we could work and so she could be pretty sure I would accept the 11 marks an hour she was offering. Which I did.

At first it was a nice cosy atmosphere and it was great being able to work in English. I was happy as it was my only chance to get a job and meet people. Everyone who worked there and most of the regulars were English or Irish. The boss made the most out of the 'one big happy family' myth to make us all feel fine to be working for 11 marks. Some people fell for this to the extent of trying to tell the rest of us to work harder, but others had no illusions and knew they were working for money. Some of us happened to be living in Germany for one reason or another and had gone into the pub to look for work, and others had come over from Ireland to work in Irish pubs in Germany, as a break from normal life, an adventure, new experience etc.

Hotel California
However, the cracks soon began to show.

There was routine bullying from the boss and her partner, who felt the need to assert their power and insecurity by ordering us about and giving us the most ridiculous and mundane tasks to do. We always had to be busy, even when there was nothing to do. Polishing the skirting boards or tidying the cleaning cupboard is not a task for 10.00 p.m. on a Thursday. This stopped us from chatting and severely limited our chances of collective action.

There were the tips. At the end of every night we gave over our wallets with all the takings from the drinks and also all the tips we had made. At the end of the week we would get our hourly wage and our tips - all worked out by the boss. We never got to count how much the tips should have been. It gradually became clear that the boss was stealing some of the tips each week. When she said to one of the waitresses that her wallet was 100 DM down, and when we found receipts for drinks rung in our keys that we had not taken for, it was obvious we were being ripped off.

We were told to wear name badges. It is really awful when a group of drunken men that you have never met before, and that it is your job to serve all night, know your name. Waitressing can get really hectic and you need to keep a lot in your head at one time and keep your cool. When someone shouts your name, you can't help but respond. It is a hotline into your personal self. So we refused to wear them by chucking them in the bin.

One of us said to the boss that she didn't like the badges and didn't want to wear them. A week later, the bosses partner (an alcoholic that works behind the bar - badly) got into a rage about nothing at all and sacked the waitress that had verbally complained. She left right there and then without her wages. (After he had threatened to beat up her boyfriend that was in the pub for a drink). There was when I called in sick and was told 'Oh for fucks sake' and 'I don't believe you' on the phone.

We only ever got our shifts on the Sunday night for the next week, which makes it really hard to plan anything. (And anyway: The mystique of the 'office work', making rotas, etc. disguises that fact that a pub is actually pretty easy to run and the workers could most times manage it better than the boss anyway). So the insecurity, but also the outrage and anger were greatly increased. Things were really brewing for trouble. Only one person was still clinging to the happy family myth and trying to stick with the boss, (who later collapsed with exhaustion from the internal conflict of being loyal to his exploiters).

With a little help from my friends
We all began to talk about what to do about the situation, mostly about the issue of our tips. There were ideas like proving what was going on by keeping our own records, keeping our own tips anyway, demanding a change in the system, and just asking in the team meeting. Because we were all on different shifts and different break times it was hard to talk with everyone and get a general agreement as to what to do. Our only real talk was on one quiet night when the boss was not there, but also only half the workers were there. A big problem for us was that most of us could still not speak German, and so could not get another job. The fear of getting the sack was real and serious. There were English and Irish people coming in every day looking for work.

The only other Irish pub in our town is even worse, with workers being promised a flat, only to find out that they are locked in from the time the pub shuts until it opens again at 11 or 12 the next day! There is routine bullying there too, a highly pressured work atmosphere and competition encouraged between the waitresses, a divide and rule tactic that leads to bitchyness. For our boss this provides a supply of desperate, English speaking, trained, waiting and bar staff, ready to take over our jobs. However, it is still not a huge community of people. Therefor it would not have been difficult to let everyone know what was going on and ask them not to take a job at our pub while we were taking action to change some of the work conditions. This would have been in the interests of everyone who works in Irish pubs. Because we have to work there, the only way things can get better is if we stick together with all the staff in all the Irish pubs, to stop our jobs becoming worse and worse, all because we have no choice but to work there. If we had got this together, I don't think she could have sacked us all if we had of demanded that we count our own tips.

In small workplaces, especially pubs and restaurants, where the customers are on their leisure time and want a nice atmosphere, there is the appearance and often the feeling, of a family, a team, a group of friends who work together. We socialised after work, often with the boss too. We had an insight into the intimate relationships of the boss and her partner. Some of us had a real personal relationship with the boss, and moved in similar social circles.

The problem is, the boss is still the boss, paying you as little as possible for as much work as possible from you. For some of us it felt a bit strange to be drinking and chatting with the boss one minute, and then discussing with your colleagues how to most effectively use our power against her to get more of what we want (i.e. - control over our tips).

Whiskey in the jar
On Mondays we all get our wages, so along I go at 8pm, only to find the pub utterly shut. Doors locked, lights off. We, the workers, all called each other and sure enough, no one had been able to get hold of the boss, no one had been paid. The next day some of us went up to the house - lights off, car gone... This has left some workers having to sell their blood (literally) in order to survive. As some of us were totally cash-in-hand we felt we could not go to the police or we would also be in trouble for not paying tax. The boss ripped us of the whole time we were working, and then did not even give us our last weeks measly 11 marks wages, all the while maintaining the 'happy family' myth. Don't believe the hype!

Heartbreak Hotel
The ambiguity about tips leads to mistrust and is used to try to divide the waitresses. This is so it seems to us that each other is cause of our shit money, and takes the attention away from the boss, who is the one who is paying the 11 marks while she takes the rest home. When each person is working for her own tips then we can get into a situation where we are fighting over tables and trying to be fastest at serving - all for an extra 2 marks, half of which goes to other staff anyway.

Most of us work cash-in-hand. This seems good as we don't have to pay tax. But it looks a bit different when you realise you have to go through the bureaucratic paper chase of the Social Security office to get your health insurance paid, and that you don't have any way of going to the authorities if anything goes wrong. The whole casual way of organising work also has a negative side for us.

There are real and inherent conflicts and contradictions. In a big workplace, or working for a big corporation, the 'enemy', the 'exploiter', the 'boss' is faceless bureaucrat that it is emotionally easier to hate, and plot against and then take action against. In small places the boss is the one we come up against, but they are also busy being screwed by the brewery. The boss then has to get back that money, and the feeling of power, by exploiting us.

Champagne Supernova
We could have demanded higher wages and better conditions together and this could have spread to the other pubs. Before the pub closed could have made an agreement with the worker and the potential workers to demand what we want or not work at all. The boss could not have afforeded to lose a few days money whilst she found a whole new staff team. We would have had her over a barrel!

We could have written a leaflet about the problems of the work and given it to all the customers until she changed her mind. Let's bring the whole family into this!
After the pub was shut we could have all gone down to Guinness brewery offices, here in the Ruhrgebiet, to demand our money. Guinness were making enough money out of that pub - and wouldn't want the bad publicity.

Imagine a world where the beer was free and you just had to help yourself. A world with no bosses and no airtex shirts! The only way we can begin to do this is to break out of or little workplaces / communities and begin to talk to each other and stand together to get what we want. If we are so bloody good at chatting, let's start chatting to each other...

You can get it if you really want
In October 2001 McDonalds, Paris sacked five workers, supposedly because there had been a theft of one million Francs out of the till. By some amazing co-incidence, just at this time the workers were planning to set up a union group. The sacked people were the candidates for the union elections. The workers went on strike that same day and stayed out for the next 110 days. In February 2002 the workers were re-instated, charges dropped and there will be wage negotiations in 800 French McDonald's branches.

In January 2002, the Frankfurt Burger King sacked someone and the other workers responded by smashing up the branch and the bosses car. Unfortunately they were nicked - but we say - "nice try guys" and we will try to follow what happens next.

Everywhere we are engaging in small acts of personal resistance and 'evening the score'. A bit of stealing, an extended break here or there, fiddling the time sheets... These acts make the work better and often give back some of the sense of power and autonomy that works takes away. To really change the basic situation at work, in the here and now, and to get rid of the stupidity of daily wage work altogether, we need to go beyond this and get the strength and courage to stand together and take collective action against our exploitation.

House of the Rising Sun
I walk towards you, slowly, but not too slow, then I am at your side, ready to do anything for you. Smiling at you, and hanging on your every word, I ask 'what can I get you' and 'is that all, do you want ANYTHING else'... And then, within seconds I am back by your side, giving you what you want most - a nice cold pint of Guinness. If I am quite charming enough, if I am pretty enough, fast enough, if your evening is going well, if I lick your arse tenderly enough - maybe you will give me 1 euro, if you feel like it...

They say that paying us low wages and making us rely on tips rewards our customer service. They are making the customer pay for the beer and pay us, so the boss doesn't have to. This lets them make a bigger profit, and squeezes that extra, sometimes soul taking, part out of us. A conflict... it is 12.30 a.m. the pub is packed, the boss says that people are waiting too long and I should work faster, but table 7 have asked for a hot milk with honey and special requests bring tips. Or the business men on table 10 want a bit of a laugh and joke, if I cut them short, the money goes down, if I keep chatting, I will get a bollocking from the boss, and that shitty feeling of flirting for money...

The personal service is the thing that they can never get a machine to do, can never make more efficient. It is the bit that comes from your self.

Come surfing...
[www.prol-position.net]
Stuff on call centres and other places

[www.charm.net/~claustro/claustro9/eattherich]
A story of restaurant workers in the US

[www.mcspotlight.org/campains/current/mcsues]
McDonald's workers magazine, very funny and radical

[www.cswa.org/restaur]
Resitance taken by asian restaurant workers