Monday, January 16, 2012

And now for a minimum wage and no penalty rates for members of the commentariat ...

Eating a meal in the United States is perplexing for anyone who's experienced paying a bill in an Australian restaurant.

The question of tipping always arises, because payment of wages has been outsourced to the private sector, which is to say the customer.

Tipping doesn't increase the quality of the service, nor does it increase the quality of the food, but there's no way to avoid it. One friend's favourite anecdote involves refusing to tip for appalling service and food, and being chased along the street by an angry restaurant worker demanding to know why a tip hadn't been offered ...

As wages and working conditions have slumped in the US, tipping culture has got out of control, run amok, but as only the reasonably well off can afford restaurant eating, the private sector has stepped up to the plate.

Where once you might have paid 10% of the bill, the benchmark shifted to 15% a long time ago, and now the range is 15-20%. Even for a well off private sector, it's clear that 20% isn't about service or food, it's about sustaining a most peculiar institution.

And if you want to avoid it, and turn up in a large group, forget it, because an 'autograt' will apply, that might get up around the 18% mark.

And that peculiar institution is the United States' flat minimum wage, without penalty rates, bells or whistles, and the capacity to treat employees as mere chattels, wage slaves to work shifts as determined.

The result is also a healthy black market economy - waiters, for example, are reported to fail to acknowledge at least 40% of their tips to the IRS - and who can blame them for a cash in the paw philosophy.

Ironically, fast food is the one area in the US where tipping need not apply:

Tipping at fast food restaurants and coffeehouses that do not offer table service is not necessary, despite the common proliferation of tip jars, which are considered inappropriate by many. (wiki Tip (gratuity))

So the poor get to serve the poor in a burger store, and the poor do the work of the service staff by cleaning up after themselves and putting their rubbish in the bin.

The funniest thing? Americans who deny there's any kind of class/monetary divide at work in the United States.

But the federal minimum award wage in the United States is $2.13 an hour for tipped workers, and $7.25 for non-tipped workers, with a median wage for restaurant workers of $8.90 (half of all workers earn less than the federal poverty line), and ninety per cent of a surveyed 4,300 workers reported not having paid sick leave (resulting in an inclination to work while sick). You can get more details and a pdf of that survey, by heading off to Guide: which US restaurants pay sick leave, living wages? Which have institutionalized racism?

There's been a bout of rhetoric about class at work in the recent Republican run offs. It ripples along, often below the surface, but then pops up when the likes of Rick Santorum announces 'there are no classes in America', or when Newt Gingrinch chides Mitt Romney for his wealth, and Jon Stewart chides him - 'Class warfare' against the rich - excuse me, job creators - is wrong, unless we're talking about Mitt Romney.

Gingrich got himself into trouble by proposing that poor (in invisible letters 'black') children as young as nine should work part time cleaning schools so that they could learn about work (no tipping required).

So where's all this heading? Well there's been an unseemly amount of penalty rates, union and award bashing in relation to restaurants doing the rounds down under in the antipodes, inspired by a first class git George Calombaris, whose main claim to a short fifteen minutes of fame is to turn up like a badly baked apple tart on MasterChef.

If there's anything more repugnant than the sight of a celebrity chef, it's the sight of a celebrity chef putting the boot into workers and what they earn (it's not like they go to uni for 15 years, moaned George about his serfs. No, the poor sods likely work all night so they can go to uni so they can escape the restaurant rat race, or work all day and study at night. Is the pond bitter at the ass-grabbing and the tit-groping and the general level of abuse and misery on offer working in restaurants? Of course not). (Out of the frying pan: penalty rates under fire from celebrity chef).

Oh okay there is something more repugnant, and that's the sight of a celebrity chef turning up in television commercials peddling a burger range for a fast food machine like KFC ('Try my burgers first,' celebrity chef Darren Simpson tells KFC critics).

Naturally dazzling Darren was defended by Neil Perry, who had himself made out like a bandit lending his name to the abysmal concept that Qantas airline food could somehow be made classy if it was designed by Perry ...

But we digress, because the real point is that in the Australian restaurant scene, casual labour rules, and workers are lucky to score 30-40k a year with 50k a year being the exception rather than the rule (Waiters hit back at MasterChef's George Calombaris after wage complaints). Put that up against a couple on a pension, with fringe benefits involving pensioner discounts, and some might rather be on the pension ...

Naturally all the usual suspects are outraged by the way restaurant workers are making out like bandits. There's the Daily Liberal, recording the suffering of restaurant owners, Weekend trading too expensive for Dubbo caf├ęs and restaurants, and there's the Institute of Public Affairs (Penalty rates killing restaurants trade), and the news from the west is just as bad (Weekend restaurant closures forced by penalty rates).

Yes, the politics of envy and class warfare is always good for a run, seeing as how the restaurant trade is full of workers living high off the hog, while humble restaurant owners struggle to make a living, and usually make do by eating the left overs from customer plates alone at night to the light of a flickering candle.

High ended restaurants are suffering, and the well off who attend them are in a total tizz of shock, loss and suffering ... because, well because the servants are revolting, and worse, they can't be crushed, intimidated, or made to work for an even more pitiful wage.

Naturally at this point fearless, crusading Paul 'magic water and sourdough lover' Sheehan jumps into the fight with Labor's big job-killing machine:

My favourite local restaurant was packed on Saturday night, as usual. What was unusual was that its co-owners, who used to take weekends off, were hard at work.

Shocking, appalling. Restaurant owners being forced to work on the weekends, when really they should be able to hire peons to work on the weekends.

Just the weekends mind you, only casuals please, and at a decent lowly rate ... because you see the weekend offers precious time to relax and take it easy, and restaurant owners are entitled, not the bloody workers with their cry baby ways ...

The rest of Sheehan's utterly predictable union bashing wends its way to an inevitable conclusion, which is to blame the public-sector unions for everything ...

Which leads the pond to one fervent wish. Instead of the usual Chinese curse - may Sheehan live in interesting times - the pond would prefer a different curse afflict this eastern suburbs ponce.

May he get to work in a United States restaurant on a minimum wage and without health benefits, and rely on tips for a living.

Come to think about it, why not replace Sheehan's current wage as a rage-laden member of the commentariat with income derived from tips ...

How on earth would he make a living?

(Below: yes, yes, he could get a gig as a pretentious food critic).


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