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Pizza Express: Hands Off Your Workers’ Dough

Without proper consultation, Pizza Express has brought in a policy that tops up kitchen pay by reducing tips to waiting staff – leaving many workers hundreds of pounds down each month.

Waiting staff picket outside Pizza Express Westminster, July 2021. Credit: Unite

‘I used to earn £1,600 a month. My last pay cheque was £895 – that’s my sudden change,’ says Anne, one of thousands of Pizza Express front of house workers who have seen their incomes slashed as a result of the company’s decision to cut their tips in order to pay kitchen workers more. It’s a decision that she and other workers say has been rammed through with minimal consultation in an ordeal she describes as ‘hellish’.

According to Unite, waiting staff at Pizza Express could lose an average of £2,000 a year after a decision to reduce their share of tips paid through credit and debit cards from 70 percent to 50 percent. It’s a situation worsened by the fact that so many waiters like Anne have also seen cash tips dry up as customers move to contactless payments in the wake of Covid.

Splitting tips equally between kitchen and waiting staff may appear to be more equal to some, but for Anne and many others in her predicament, it’s a way of the company passing the buck and refusing to tackle the root cause of underpaid staff who struggle with low pay and worsening conditions in a race to the bottom.

‘The whole of the industry is going towards sharing tips equally, and it sounds so friendly that it’s hard to argue with in the media and not sound greedy,’ says Anne. ‘But what they’re doing is ensuring that waiting tables—a customer services sales role in which you probably earn a third of wages in tips—gets slashed so that the back of house staff can earn more. Instead of just paying them more and us more, we’re on basic wage; they’re just taking the tips we earn and redistributing them, pretending that that’s equality.’

Anne is in her forties, and has been a waiter her entire working life. The decision of the company to suddenly reduce her income by half has left her feeling trapped, and having to borrow money to survive. She describes the ordeal as a ‘nightmare’.

‘The scandal for us is that they’ve pushed through the changes claiming that they were made by an elected committee,’ she adds. ‘The committee is not known to anybody, and they refuse to say who the committee are because they’re scared. These people are supposed to have voted on our behalf, but that’s not what happened. It’s just been contrived.’

The committee Anne is referring to is known as Tronc, which supposedly consists of staff members who decide how tips are allocated. Anne, along with others, says the workers on the committee were not elected by staff, and that their membership and minutes remain shrouded in secrecy.

She describes Pizza Express as either ‘unscrupulous or incompetent’, adding that customers don’t want to leave a tip because they know it won’t be going to the waiters. ‘The tip is developed through a relationship between the server and the customer. If you ask the customer how much they expect me to get of it, they never say 40 percent.

‘I’m providing a service. They’re looking me in the eye. I’m the one that’s been concerned about whether their table will have too much air conditioning, whether I should hang their coat, whether I should tend to their kids who upset.’

Harry, a university student in London, had been working part-time as a waiter for Pizza Express while studying before going full-time in the summer holidays. He says the company has put waiting staff like him ‘at the bottom of the pile’.

‘The company isn’t tackling our concerns head-on, or really entertaining them at all,’ he says. ‘I could understand that they were thinking of trialling it before Covid, but now, with even less people bringing cash tips into the restaurant and more and more paying on card, it’s like a double whammy.

‘So we’re not earning cash tips anymore, and we’re earning less card tips. It feels like we’re being neglected – if not neglected, then punished, really, because they’re not listening to waiting concerns.’

Last month Harry worked 40-hour weeks during what was one of the busiest times for Pizza Express—after restaurants opened up and restrictions were eased—to take home only £1,200. He explains that he’s earning money elsewhere too, but he knows that if this was his only job, he would struggle – and that he knows other waiters are struggling.

Anthony was working part-time last year before losing his job. He had hoped that by working for Pizza Express full-time he would be able to make up some of his lost income. Instead he’s been facing financial worries and sleepless nights after the company’s change of policy has left him down £150 a month – almost £2,000 a year.

He says that all his colleagues are demoralised, and few want to be working there, particularly since the Tronc system—which is supposed to fairly distribute tips—lacks any real autonomy, being managed by the employer themselves.

‘The company is squeezing us from all sides,’ Anthony says. ‘The money is terrible, and the stress is huge. After work I come home and I can’t sleep, because I keep having nightmares about the stressful day I had. I don’t think it’s worth it.’

In response, Pizza Express insists that the decision to change the tips policy was made by the TRONC committee. When approached for comment, a Pizza Express spokesperson said: ‘In February 2020, our employee-led TRONC Committee decided to update the way that our restaurant teams share out the tips they receive, so that 100% of all restaurant tips would be split 50/50 between front of house and back of house team members.’