Sunday 23 January 2011

Waiters and Hotel Workers

A straightforward piece on the working conditions of waiters and hotel-workers:



     AMONG the many topics upon which society is just now exercised, the condition of the masses upon whose toil it subsists is one of the foremost. We want to know what they eat, where they sleep, how they amuse themselves, and what means of satisfying their requirements their daily toil brings within their reach. And this curiosity is naturally keenest and widest spread about the classes we are most immediately dependent upon. Among these are the employes who cook for us and wait upon us in the clubs and restaurants of the West End. A short study of the varying conditions of their work will perhaps be acceptable to some of the readers of this magazine. We take the waiters first, as being the class of employes most in evidence before the public, as well as the most numerous.
     The mode and amount of remuneration in this occupation varies extremely. The scale of wages in clubs is high, £50 to £60 a year for head-waiters, and £25 to £40, according to the class of work and length of service, for the rest, exclusive of board and lodging, which are provided for all classes of club servants. The conditions of service are much the same in the best hotels as in clubs, and so is the rate of pay. The wages in other hotels would range from ten to twenty shillings a week, with board and lodging as well; in the more luxurious society restaurants, from fifteen to twenty shillings (the headwaiter getting ten shillings more) ; and, in restaurants for business people, from ten to twelve shillings, in both cases without lodging. The men who are paid the smallest wages by their employers have, however, by no means the lowest incomes. The custom of tipping is pretty generally taken into account by master and man in fixing the rate of remuneration. Accordingly, other things being equal, the greater the opportunity for betting tips the lower the rate of wages. There is, indeed, no hard and fast rule of proportion between the amount of wages accepted and of tips expected. But, speaking generally, we should not be far wrong, I think, in reckoning the tips received in wage-paying restaurants as at least equal to the wages paid, and in hotels as half that proportion. I am speaking now especially of English hotel and restaurant waiters. English waiters in clubs, and foreign waiters in restaurants, who are mostly Italians or Italian-Swiss, are on quite different footings, In the club, tipping is not usual ; its place is taken by Christmas-boxes. Here and there, a proprietor may forbid domestics to receive tips, but so dear is the custom to the British public that, in spite of such a rule, a waiter sometimes finds his customer has in departing left a souvenir for him under his plate. In other cases the head-waiter gets the lion's share of tips. As each waiter has usually certain tables allotted to him (called his station), the number of persons whom he has to serve, and consequently the amount of his tips, will depend very much on the position of these tables. If they are in an out-of-the-way corner he will get few tips, and if they are near a window he will bet many. In order to equalise the chances, the waiters' stations are changed from day to day.
     While the English waiter, for the most part, stipulates for a fixed wage, however small, the foreign restaurant waiter is content not only to rely on tips alone (for which he is nevertheless not allowed to ask), but frequently has to pay his employer a considerable percentage on his gains. He arrives here almost ignorant of the language, and accepts a low wage to secure a situation where he will have an opportunity of learning it. When he has attained a certain degree of fluency he transfers himself to a restaurant, where, with long and incessant toil, he makes a fairly good living—perhaps a couple of pounds a week—in spite of the heavy tax his employer imposes on his industry. Hard-working and frugal, he keeps a comfortable home over his head, and puts by as well, so that by the time he attains middle life, he is in a position to emancipate himself. The amount he pays for his place depends on the position of lns station, on the class of customers he serves, and on the amount of tips that may consequently be reckoned on, but it may be roughly estimated at from half-a-crown to five shillings a da.y, or from one to two pounds a week. In other restaurants, the waiter pays to the master, instead, a commission of about sixpence in the pound on all orders ; that is to say, if the waiter has received five pounds for meals supplied during the day to customers, he pays the master £5 2s. 6d., so that until he has received half-a-crown in tips he has actually given his labour for nothing, and is out of pocket to boot. These payments are quite independent of the deposit required under the cheque system described later on. In most restaurants owned by foreigners, all waiters are free and equal, and there are no head-waiters ; but in some a few principal waiters are employed, who pay nothing for their places and who take all the tips, engaging all further help, when required, at their own expense. The under-waiters so employed will get about fourteen or fifteen shillings a week wages, and pick up an odd shilling or two besides by brushing customers' hats and coats. The remuneration in the smaller and cheaper restaurants owned by Italians does not fall very far short of the amount obtaining in those I have just referred to. The tips given are much smaller in amount, but greater in number, and the pence mount up.
     Breakages of glass and crockery by their servants are a fruitful source of loss to proprietors, and they have various modes of defending themselves against it. In one club breakages to the annual value of twenty pounds are allowed for as unavoidable. Breakages above that value are made good by a general levy throughout the staff. But a much more general practice is to have an indemnity fund, to which the employees are required to contribute a fixed weekly sum, ranging from fourpence to a shilling for each person, and to make good any breakages which may occur in excess of it. Under such a system the fund may easily be worked as a source of income to the proprietor. Other employers dispense with a fund, each employe making good any damage occasioned by him. Fines for lateness are very general —about threepence for each quarter of an hour being a frequent penalty.
     As a rule, except in clubs, waiters find their own clothes, and pay for their washing themselves.
     In restaurants where the customer pays his bill through the waiter, the latter is held responsible for its due payment from the moment he receives the articles ordered by the customer from the kitchen, and what is known as the "cheque " system is pretty generally adopted. The waiter, on beginning his day's work, pays in to the proprietor, or his clerk, from two to five pounds, to cover the value of the orders he is likely to receive during the day, and he is given in exchange a number of "cheques." For every order he gives he hands in cheques to an equivalent amount. If the value of the orders exceed the amount of deposit, the waiter must pay in more money before he receives the dishes. What the customers pay him he retains until settling time. If the customer goes away without paying, the waiter must bear the loss. In one instance I heard of, a customer, after enjoying a sumptuous dinner, suddenly discovered, with much apparent surprise, that he had not the wherewithal to pay for it, and told the waiter he must go to borrow it from a friend. He offered, very fairly, to take the waiter with him, and chartered a cab for the purpose. They drove to two or three places without finding the friend at home. At last they discovered him ; at least the customer disappeared through what he said was the door of his friend's room. He did not return ; and on the anxious waiter's inquiring whither the door led, he learnt that it communicated with a passage leading into the street at the back of the house. It was too late to follow in pursuit, and my unfortunate friend had not only the dinner to pay for, but the cabman engaged by the customer to settle with, which might be considered, under the circumstances, as insult added to injury. The waiter is the person on whom blame naturally falls if orders are not promptly executed. But lie is himself at the mercy of the kitchen porters, who pass him the dishes from the kitchen, and these men can seriously impede him by dawdling in carrying out his orders if he fails to square them with a fee. So that here we find an unexpected illustration of the truth of the late Professor Edward Forbes's scientific observation a propos of the infinitely little in nature :
     "Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
      And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum."
     The waiter, who lives in part upon the customer, is himself preyed upon by the kitchen porter.
     Waiters are engaged by the month, week, or day, and in some establishments they can leave or be discharged without notice. The longer periods are usual in clubs and hotels, but both in them and in restaurants a great number of waiters are employed by the evening, going on duty between four and six o'clock. Many of these evening waiters are employed in the daytime in city restaurants, which close early.
     A waiter's hours of duty strike us at first sight as longer than those of any other calling. But it must be remembered that he is not actively engaged the whole time. In this respect the waiter in small hotels and restaurants is worse off than in larger ones, since, as fewer hands are employed, it is less easy to arrange for relief. In clubs, the waiters are divided into sides, each of which is busy and slack on alternate days. The busy side is on duty all through the club day, except during a few hours' rest in the afternoon. The slack side is on duty for some six or seven hours in the busy part of the day. A hotel waiter has a rest in the afternoon, and in some places goes off duty an hour or two earlier on alternate nights. The same rule holds good as to restaurants, where the waiter goes between eight and nine in the morning, and helps to clean the plate and to set out the tables, and then goes home for an hour or two to dress. He has sometimes a rest in the afternoon as well. A waiter's working day (exclusive of rests) averages roughly twelve hours in an English house, and thirteen or fourteen in a foreign. In some houses the hours are longer. One Sunday in two or three, or half of every Sunday, is usually allowed the waiter, and this rule holds good throughout the trade.
     As in most trades, there is a wide fringe of casual labour, at least among the English waiters. The foreigner not only is cheaper, but speaks two or three languages to the Englishman's one. A large proportion of hotel and restaurant managers are foreigners, and they prefer to employ their own countrymen. Of the foreigners we probably have the pick; of our own countrymen we have, of course, all sorts—good, bad, and indifferent—and the latter naturally find it hard to get employment. The clubs, indeed, and many of the best hotels and restaurants (as well as most commercial hotels) employ none but English; and in such houses the steady and competent men find constant and well-paid work. But men who are intemperate, or slovenly, or careless while on duty, are only employed during a heavy press of work, or in suburban pleasure resorts during the summer season. The foreigners have organized some half-dozen clubs or unions with employment registries attached, and these clubs have established relations with employers, to whom they guarantee the character of the servants they supply. These unions combine the functions of social club, employment registry, and friendly society; and one at least of them lets furnished sleeping rooms to its bachelor members at a moderate rent, with the general comfort and cleanliness of which I was much impressed.
     The routine of a London hotel or restaurant exacts of the waiter a sharpness and agility that is only to be found among the comparatively young. A man over forty or forty-five is seldom to be found amogo the ranks. By that time he has either been promoted to a head-waitership or some such dignified and lucrative post, or he has betaken himself to some other calling, especially if he has saved money and can go into business. Germans are said to prefer returning to their own country when they can do so without fear of the military law. There they find many snug little berths as commissionaires, cicerones, or interpreters, for which they are well adapted. Italians often remain in England and become proprietors of restaurants themselves. Several of them will put their money together and make a venture on true co-operative lines. One will cook, another will wait on customers, whilst a third attends to the shop and takes the money, the profits being shared out among them.
     The foreigner strikes one as being generally the superior of his English comrade in intelligence, and this is hardly to be wondered at, since lie has been farther afield, and often belongs to a higher class in his own country. A German will sometimes adopt the calling of waiter here for the sake of the facilities it offers for learning the language,a knowledge which he can turn to account on his return. As has already been said, the newly-arrived foreigner undersells not only the Englishman but his own already established countrymen, who obtain quite as good pay as the average English waiter, though they perhaps work somewhat harder for it and whose standard of comfort is quite equal to his. There seems to be no data for ascertaining the exact number of foreign waiters in London. The restaurants are almost entirely manned by them. The German waiters' clubs alone are said to have twelve hundred members.
     The chef, whether of a club, hotel, or restaurant, is a very important officer. He stands in the front rank of his profession. He is responsible for any shortcomings on the part of his subordinates, appoints each day's menu, and supervises the composition of the various dishes. The actual handiwork is done, in large establishments, by the second chef and by women-cooks and kitchen-maids. Of the various departments of roasting, dressing vegetables, making pastry, and compounding sauces, the two last require the most skill. The chef's income would not be despised by many a struggling professional man. Even in first-class restaurants and vegetarian dining-rooms the pay is two or three pounds a week, while in clubs and the best class of hotels and restaurants it rises to £200 or £300 a year, and sometimes more. Besides this, the chef is allowed to increase his income ten or twenty per cent. by taking pupils, and members of a club will often put their cooks under him for a month's training, paying him a few guineas as a premium. It goes without saying that the majority of chefs are French.
     The chef is the only servant in a club who is not under the direction of the steward. This important official does the daily marketing for the club. An analogous post in restaurants is filled by the storekeeper. Other servants are the butler and hall-porter, whose duties are sufficiently intelligible ; the kitchen porter, who is the go-between of the tradesman and the cook, on the one hand, and of the cook and the waiter on the other ; the scullerymen and the luggage porters. The latter are the modern representatives of the "boots" of the old coaching days. The pay of these servants may be taken at about a pound a week either in money or in money's worth. The butler is of course paid more liberally.
     From men-servants we turn to women-servants. The housekeeper and female-clerk in hotels and clubs belong, like the steward and chef, rather to the salaried than to the wage-earning class. The housekeeper exercises a general supervision over the other employees (who usually live on the premises), and it is on her good temper and judgment, and capacity for organizing work with the least waste of labour, that their comfort mainly depends. The housemaids under her receive from £14 to £20, the kitchen and stillroom-maids a little more. Their working-day generally lasts twelve or thirteen hours, but this includes a rest in the afternoon. Chambermaids' wages are also about £20, but as they are in constant touch with the public, which values its night's rest, and is eager to conciliate the tutelary deities of the bedchamber, they, of course, derive a considerable auxiliary income from its bounty. If we turn from these menial employments to the more "select" ranks of barmaids, waitresses, and counter-girls in restaurants, we shall find that the profit of a post is in inverse ratio to its dignity, except when some responsibility attaches to it. Barmaids' wages hover between ten and fifteen shillings a week, with board, and sometimes lodging; counter-girls earn about the same, while waitresses average about eight or ten shillings,and have partial board as well. The manageress at a large bar or counter would receive half as much again, or even double. When we consider the appearance these young ladies are expected to maintain, and the long hours some of them remain on duty, their remuneration appears by no means high. But we must remember that they frequently receive substantial presents and gratuities, which materially enhance their incomes. And another point to be considered, and which applies also, to some extent, to counter-assistants and waitresses, is that these young ladies regard their present employment less as their life's business than as a stepping-stone to a desirable matrimonial alliance.
     Barmaids generally live on the premises, but the other employees are frequently outdoor hands. A great number of them are not entirely dependent on their own exertions. They live at home, sometimes paying their parents a few shillings a week for board, and sometimes having only to find their clothes. Others live in homes for business girls, where they are comfortably maintained at a far smaller cost than if they lived by themselves. Or they economise by living two or three together. The employment, too, especially behind the counter, is considered easy and genteel, and the daughters and sisters of clerks and small tradesmen, who are too proud or too delicate to undertake more laborious work. keenly compete for such situations. They are therefore content with a low rate of remuneration, compared with the wages received by the maids in hotels and clubs, who are mostly drawn from a rather lower class; and they thus make matters worse for the minority, who are entirely dependent on their own earnings, and have, perhaps, to help their relations as well. These find it hard to make both ends meet on remuneration which is sometimes little more than pocket-money wages, and from which ten or twenty per cent. has to be taken off for the cost of clean caps and aprons. It is a curious fact that, more than a century ago, the inquiring mind of Boswell had applied to Johnson for aid in solving the problem, why women-servants, who had to find their own clothes, were paid so much less than men-servants, whose liveries were provided by their masters. The omniscient lexicographer had to confess himself baffled.
     The life of servants in a club seems monotonous and dull. The hours of duty are long, and probably seem none the less so because there is no heavy pressure of work except at the usual meal times. There is something depressing, too, in the solemn and decorous atmosphere pervading club-rooms. On the other hand, for the solid creature comforts of good pay and fairly healthy conditions of life, club service compares favourably with other callings, but most of all in the constancy of employment. When off duty, the servants can sit in the servants' hall, which is kept supplied with books and games. Some clubs pension off their old servants, and encourage the formation of cricket and benefit clubs among their staff. For the amusement of the women servants a social club has been opened near Charing Cross, with the concurrence of many of the leading clubs and hotels. In many clubs, the leading servants have gradually worked their way up from the position of page-boys, so that the prospect of probable promotion imparts a zest to life. The conditions of service in the old-fashioned first-rate hotels approximate nearly to those in clubs, and servants who have been used to them generally prefer the kind of life to private service. The work is more systematic, and there is more society.
     But the formal epitome of the earnings and hours of work of these employes affords but an incomplete and partial test of their comfort and happiness. These depend largely on the character and demeanour of their immediate superiors. In the power of these latter it lies to combine firmness with fairness, to be lenient towards insignificant failings, to show consideration in illness, and so to apportion the work as to avoid friction and waste of time or labour. And the employes are very ready to recognise any consideration shown them by their employers. In this department of labour, no less than in others whose views and aspirations are find. ing public expression, we see that the concrete advantages of high wages and short hours are not the only points on which the workers set a value, but that personal kind. ness, consideration, and courtesy on the part of employers and managers meet with prompt recognition from their subordinates.

Good Words, 1892