Short-changed: Britain's waiters and waitresses have their say

Louise Parry, 21, Shropshire

"I worked at a restaurant when I was at university in Sheffield until last month. All in all I've been a waitress for six years. At one place, tips were supposedly added up and split at the end of each week and given to us in cash with our wages. Waiting staff got a bigger cut of tips than the kitchen. But it was never clear how the cut was made and whether the boss kept any of the tips – some people said they took 10 per cent. In another restaurant I worked in, tips were split equally between all staff, but it was done that night, by the waiting staff, so you knew it was fair.

We added a 10 per cent service charge to parties. The cash was taken from the till and put in the tip jar. The same happened for credit card tips, but I think the boss used to keep some of them. It used to annoy me how ambiguous the tipping policy was, and how it meant people could "steal" some of the tips.

I got the minimum wage with tips on top and was quite happy with my wages – in a good week I could take home the equivalent of £9 an hour (about £6 in a bad week). But then again, most restaurants don't give you paid holidays or sick pay, which you would get in other jobs.

I think the fairest system would be for all tips to be split between all staff, chefs, waiters pot washers – they all work as a team, and every one of them is part of the reason why a customer's eating experience is good or bad."

Rachel Leroux, 28, London

"Until last year, I worked in a pub in west London that was part of a national chain. When I was there we could keep all our cash tips and, at the end of the night, we would tally up our sales, and anything over that was left in credit card tips would be divided between us and the bar and kitchen staff. I thought it was a fair system. But at the point I left, they changed it to a "tronc" (pooled) system, where you could keep cash tips, but credit card tips would be distributed according to the number of hours that you worked.

So let's say you worked Friday night and earned £200 in tips. If you had only worked five hours that week, you would hardly see any of the money. Most of it would go to staff who might have worked 60 hours a week, perhaps on less busy days. I don't think it's fair, but a lot of restaurants have similar policies now so they can keep control over things like tax. These days you never know as a waitress where the money is going, and how much is kept by management.

Even with fair tipping, it's hard to make a good living, especially in London. You're paid not much more than £5 an hour, and really rely on tips to pay the rent. A lot of people I know have moved away from waiting now. Some of us would work two jobs, so you might be on your feet for 80 hours a week, with no weekends. And if you're earning £5 an hour and all the tips go to management, of course there isn't the incentive to give customers the best service."

Andrew Walsh, 39, London

"Until recently I worked for a big chain of restaurants in London. They paid the minimum wage, and we could keep cash tips, but they took a proportion of the service charge, which varied from about 60 to 90 per cent. I think it's grossly unfair because when the customer pays a service charge, they think it's for the service, or for the waiters to distribute the money between themselves.

I used to tell my customers that paying the service charge was discretionary. They would ask how much of it I got, and I would tell them that the company took, say, 80 per cent. The majority of people I told were completely shocked and didn't want to pay it. Under the current law, service charges belong to the restaurant, so I couldn't say, 'Don't pay the service charge', I just told them that it was discretionary and answered their questions. It said it was discretionary on the bill, but a lot of people didn't read it or understand where it went.

In the end, my managers saw that the service charges sometimes weren't appearing on bills from my tables and asked me what was happening. I told them that the customers didn't want to pay because the restaurant was deducting this huge amount from the charge before they passed any of it on. They said I had tarnished the company's image and they suspended me. I was so shocked. I had earned so much money in sales for them. I don't know if I will be sacked – they are paying me the minimum wage while I am suspended.

It's not an easy job. You don't get weekends, bank holidays, Christmas or Easter. I have heard that a lot of restaurants pay well below the minimum wage. It's ridiculous. If customers knew, they would be appalled. It also means there's no incentive for waiters. A fair policy would be for restaurants to pay at least the minimum wage, with no service charge, and then customers would be free to tip according to what they think the waiter deserves."

Stella Rockford, 31, Carlisle

"We put out tips into a box and share it between all the waiting staff and the kitchen staff at the end of the month. There are two problems with this; firstly, the waiting staff don't like the fact that the kitchen staff get a share of our tips; and secondly, we get the tips back in our wages, which means we get taxed on them. Waiters and waitresses get paid £5.55 an hour here – that's less than the people in the kitchen. And when people leave tips, it is usually based on the quality of the service they get, not the quality of the food, so I don't see why the kitchen staff, who are paid more than us anyway, should get a share of money that was left for the waiting staff.

The tips are shared out according to how many hours you have worked each month, so someone who has worked more hours will get more money. But it doesn't seem fair that one person could have worked a lot harder than someone else and earned more tips, but they get exactly the same amount at the end of the month if they've worked the same amount of hours.

The tax thing is particularly annoying, though, and it's something that I don't think a lot of customers realise is happening. I think if they did know, then they wouldn't tip us as often because people like to know that their tip is going to the person who served them, not the taxman."

Sacha Ilic, 35, south-east England

"Recently the restaurant where I work started taking about 65 per cent of the service charge, which everyone thought was pretty steep. But then the weeks went by and it got higher and higher – sometimes almost 90 per cent. They didn't tell us this – I had to calculate it every week by studying my payslips. Sometimes managers have confirmed how much the company is taking, but it's certainly not something they volunteer. We're not happy about it.

We used to operate under a system where service wasn't included and the customer would leave what they felt we deserved, which would go directly to us. Under the current rules, the company can legally increase revenue by taking money from its staff – more and more places are doing it now.

With service charges, customers think we get it, so they don't leave any cash. Because I know the system, if I'm eating out, I'll ask for the service charge to be taken off and leave the same amount to the waiter in cash. But then you have to worry about the other staff losing out – you can't win.

I only tell customers the truth if they ask me. We're told not to tell them, but I'm not going to refuse to tell people if they ask.

I can see that the most important thing for restaurants is profits and percentages, but I don't think it should cost money to look after staff. If your staff are happy – and remember we are the first point of contact – it makes a big difference and you are motivated to sell. If your percentage is larger, you are more motivated, but if you're doing a lot of work for no or little return, you're not motivated. And that affects everyone.

I see other restaurants where they do look after staff and they haven't gone bust – if anything, they're more successful."

Anne Walton, 27, Cumbria

"Our system is similar to a lot of places, in that we put all of the tips into a jar and share it out among the waiting staff, the bar staff and the kitchen staff at the end of the week. I'm on £4.60 an hour, so a good week of tips can be really helpful. It seems like a good system, but because a few plates have been broken recently, the restaurant has just introduced a crockery charge. It means that at the end of each night, £2 is deducted from our tips to pay for crockery. In a good week we can get upwards of £20 in tips, but some weeks we don't average £2 in tips per night so we get nothing.

We've also noticed recently that some people have been leaving tips when paying by card. If, for example, the bill is £85, they might pay £90 and I don't think we see any of that. We haven't been told if we do or don't.

Also, it's not clear to the customer if we get the tips that they leave by card. So even if we do, I think the customer is put off leaving a tip because they aren't sure if the person they are tipping will ever see any of it. I know that before the chip-and-pin machine was introduced, we were getting more tips.

Gary Levy, 44, Surrey

"I've been working in restaurants for almost 20 years, and while I'm a manager now, I've done practically every job in the industry. Over the years I've worked in places with no service charges, restaurants that operate the "tronc" system, and in places where tips are staggered depending on longevity of service. My main problem with the tipping system is that too often it's used by managers as a slush fund, frequently at the direction of restaurant owners or senior management, to cover mistakes and protect revenue.

The whole arrangement is sinister. For example, I've known managers to take money from the tips jar to make up the float if it is down, to make up the petty cash or to make up any discrepancies after thefts. In fact, I've even known managers to steal money from the cash register themselves and use the cash tips to hide it.

It's not just the managers who are at it. I know that a chain of restaurants, which I used to work for, took 40 per cent of the tips for themselves. Across the chain it is not implausible to believe that they have received £250,000 a year in extra revenue from tips that should have gone to the staff.

I don't see a simple solution, but perhaps the fairest way is to spilt tips on the night between the service staff – all the other staff, such as the chefs, should be paid well enough by the restaurants not to need tips. Something has to be done, and the customer needs to be directed to provide a fair tip which will go to the staff who deserve it."

Some names have been changed

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