What people love about restaurant is the hassle-free experience – some- one else cooks, another serves and yet another clears. But the best part of the eating out experience is that the dishes just disappear, hassle free until the bill of course. However, working in a restaurant is a completely different story – it is a thankless, unorganized world that young Israelis enter to make ends meet.
Earlier this month, facing gross labour law violations, waiters in Israel came together to form the country’s first waiter’s union. A fall out of the mass protest in the summer of 2011 that saw hundreds of thousands of Israelis take to the streets in demand of social justice.
For a long time now, waiters in Israel have been working under illegal, exploitative conditions. The union, simply known as ‘the waiters union’ is the first collective attempt by waiters to try and change the unspoken rules of this industry.
While in India, where waiters belong to the lower socio-economic segment, where they could never image exchanging places with the customers they wait on and waiting tables is lifelong career, in Israel, most waiters are university students belonging to the upper-middle class, who take up the profession as a part -time job. In most cases, these student cum waiters are in a position to play the role of customer when they choose to do so.
In this lies the source of the problem faced by the waiters of Israeli. As temporary employees, they have little or no value. The employer’s motivation to invest in keeping them for a long period is low as they know waiters come and go. Twenty-seven-year-old Inbar Cohen, a part time waitress in Jerusalem feels, “it seems that in the restaurant industry the employers do not appreciate their workers, they are more interested in earning as much money as they can while spending as little as possible on us, the employees.”
By Israeli law employers must pay waiters in one of three ways, either they pay an hourly minimum wage of approximately Rs 286 or the waiters are paid just through tips on which the employer must pay tax (the tips must match the minimum wage rate) or they can be paid through both. However, the reality is very different. Usually, the waiters don’t receive a fixed salary from the restaurant and are paid out of the tips they receive. While in many cases the tips are higher than the minimum wage, the employer doesn’t pay the required tax, passing the tax burden onto the waiters. Not only does this create a financial burden and insecurity as tips vary from day to day, but not being paid directly by your place of employment causes a sense of detachment, “I don’t really care about the restaurant I work in or my employer, my philosophy is simple, I care about my customers as they are my source of income” says a young student-waiter who chose not to be named.
While the customer is king, the working conditions of Israeli waiters are borderline illegal. For example, it is common for waiters to be called for shifts as a backup worker, pulling them away from their studies only to be sent back without payment as there was no work. Michal, a waitress in a high-end restaurant in Tel Aviv explains, “There have been many occasions when I have been called into work but sent back because the manager decided I was not needed as there were not enough customers. Not only did I not get paid, but I wasted my time and money commuting to the restaurant.” To make matters worse waiters are fired without notice and usually do not get days off or sick days as they are not proper employees.
After years of working under conditions like that, this month, the Israeli waiters’ union was formed. Throughout the years, several attempts of forming unions for waiters have been made but were local and ended quickly mainly due to employers’ pressures and threats. However, there is a section of waiters who feel that legitimizing the business will hurt their income and wish to continue with statu-quo.
It is interesting to compare the case of waiters in Israel to that of waiters in India. In India, like in Israel, working conditions vary from one establishment to the other, which makes it difficult to create a sense of unity for all the workers. What makes it even more difficult is that in India the difference between the establishments can be greater than the one that can be found in Israel. Here, on one end of the range, small, cheap, simple “dhabbas” can be found and at the other end very sophisticated, expensive and well organized restaurants. In the different “dhabbas”, the employment conditions change. In some places, the workers are self-employed. That means that they fill the different positions needed in the small restaurant and get its daily profit. Some
Some dhabbas have waiters that earn only their tips or what the owner decided to pay them and don’t get other benefits. That is the sector that will probably benefit most from a union.
From conversations with Indian waiters, working in the more organized establishments, it seems that waiters are happy with their working conditions. They tell that they do work long hours but always get a break of at least two hours a day (doesn’t seem much) and they get a day off during the week. In those kinds of restaurants, the employers tend to obey the law. That means, they pay their waiters a day’s minimum wage and the waiter keeps the tips they are given. This can be attributed to the fact that in India, waiting tables is a career, this in itself motivates restaurant owners to want to keep their hard-working employees with them.
The new waiters’ union is an all Israel union, one that aims to fight for all workers in the food business. The founding member of the union, Alon-Lee Green told the media, “What initiated the forming of this union now is the echo of the social uprising which started last year. It is clear that Israeli society wants to change itself for the better. The goal of the social uprising was social justice and now the time has come to bring justice to the workplace.” What comes of this unionization of waiters remains to be seen, but for the thousands of students who opt for this part-time job, maybe it will improve their working conditions.