Tel Aviv's Café Noir, one of Israel’s most popular restaurants, found itself surrounded by loud protesters last week – young types singing, holding up signs and handing out pamphlets unsexily titled, for instance, “Workers shouldn’t have to pay for the privilege of working” and “Social benefits – the employer’s duty.”
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Some customers asked the waiters what on earth was going on. Others shrugged and dug into their schnitzel, an icon at Café Noir.
Tipping waiters isn’t a topic regulated by law. Diners leave tips, but they don’t know how the money gets shared. At Café Noir, the protest is precisely about that.
The restaurant's workers aren’t just messing about with cardboard and ink. They’ve sued in labor court over social benefits, which are based on management’s practice of distributing tips based on how many hours each waiter worked minus 30 shekels ($8.52) per hour per worker. That amount goes into a bank account managed by a company called Café Noir Union, though it has nothing to do with any labor representation. Another 8% of the tips goes to the bartenders.
Regarding the kitchen staff, cooks get some of their pay from the company and some from the account at Café Noir Union. A cook grossing 36 shekels an hour gets 26 from the company and 10 from Café Noir Union, and receives a pay slip only for 26, on which social benefits are provisioned. He gets no social benefits on the 10 shekels.
That’s just one of the ways of the restaurant business, which is short on regulation and long on dodging labor laws. Enforcement by the Economy Ministry in 2013 led to 140 cases in the business; for example, for paying less than minimum wage, not paying for training days, not paying overtime, failing to provide pay slips, and issuing pay slips that didn’t match actual pay.
The restaurant business is huge in Israel. Insiders estimate that it has 100,000 employees, from dishwashers to chefs to shift managers. Most of the jobs don’t require training and are shift work with a high churn rate, usually of young people who accept the employment conditions without a fuss.
The protest outside Café Noir is unusual for the sector. In most cases, the workers aren’t organized. The outcome of this protest may have implications for the whole industry.
New day, new terms
Café Noir was opened in 1997 on high-end Ahad Ha’am Street by childhood friends Rafi Bader and Gideon Eliyahu. It did well, becoming one of the more popular restaurants in the city, where 70% of eateries fold in less than two years. Together with other restaurateurs, Bader opened other places too, including Sebastian in Herzliya Pituah and a café that indeed closed in two years.
Nine months ago, Adi Tchursh, Oriel Lapidus and Dori Maykon, friends who have been working at Café Noir for years, had enough.
“It began with a text message from management that from the next day they’d no longer pay waiters for preparations we have to do – preparing dips in the morning – for which we’d been getting 40 shekels,” says the 25-year-old Lapidus, who has been at the restaurant for three years. Tips would compensate, the waiters were told, but in practice, each waiter was out an hour’s pay, Lapidus says.
“We realized they could simply change our employment terms from one day to the next, and asked ourselves ‘why don’t we protest?’” says Tchursh, 26, who has been at Noir for a year and a half. Other workers said they would join a protest and Lapidus sent a message to the website of the Histadrut labor federation.
Directed by the Histadrut youth organization, the three signed up 36 workers, more than half the staff. The next day they told the CEO of the Noir group, Noga Beige Basson, that they had elected a representation (which under law requires the signature of one-third of an enterprise’s workers). The boss was in shock, the three activists say.
At first, management tried to deflect them from organizing, claiming implications for the business. “We didn’t expect to change the restaurant business from top to bottom,” Tchursh says, adding that the workers weren’t demanding a raise, just regulation of payment and social benefits.
Management said it would think about it. “They basically told us that there is a resource, the tips, and they’re willing to distribute them differently, but it was clear they wouldn’t pay a penny out of pocket,” Tchursh says.
So the representation declared a formal labor dispute and the protests outside Café Noir began. Management became belligerent toward employees associated with the union, the activists say. “Once we were messaged at 12 not to come to a shift starting at 12:30,” Tchursh says.
One activist was accused of stealing 198 shekels from the cash register and putting it into the tips jar, a claim the union vehemently denies. Another, a baker who posted on Facebook and granted media interviews about the dispute, was summoned for a hearing (part of the legal process ahead of a dismissal), claiming the restaurant was closing the section in which he was the only employee. Management also sent a warning letter from a lawyer to Lapidus, demanding that he apologize for comments he made and pay 200,000 shekels in compensation for libel.
Management’s position is very much the opposite of the workers’. “The million-dollar question is how we reached this battle in the first place. One day we got a letter that the waiters had organized,” Beige Basson says.
“It was the first time I ever saw a thing like this, and I didn’t even understand the rules of the game. I called one of the waiters over to explain. The workers here get social benefits, minimum wage from the restaurant alone, convalescence [as required under Israeli law], pension provisions and vacation. Waiters earn tips of no less than 100 shekels an hour. This isn’t some industrial plant in the south where workers gross 30 shekels an hour.”
Who’s harassing who?
From May to August, management and labor met twice a week, but everything broke down over wages, Beige Basson says. “They kept talking about the waiters’ tips, but I want to remind you that tips belong to all the service providers,” she says.
“All the money passing through the restaurant belongs to the owner of the business, and I think – and so do the restaurant owners – that the cake should be shared among all the service providers. Your restaurant experience starts with the hostess at the entrance and continues to the tablecloth, the plate, the bartender pouring the drink, and yes, to the waiters too.”
She says Noir did agree to pay more out of pocket but “asked for fresh thinking” on how tips would be shared, to be fair to all departments.
As Beige Basson puts it, thus was born the untruth that Noir was going to cut waiters’ wages, while the restaurant had agreed to several tens of thousands of shekels and an improvement of social benefits for everyone, including bartenders, cooks and managers.
According to Beige Basson, the activists say they’re being harassed, but she says a worker faces a hearing for stealing. As she asks, if she has video footage, can’t the woman be fired?
Shai Berman, the head of Israel’s restaurant association, agrees. “Israel has a minimum wage law that applies to all employers, but with us there’s one difference. We can use the tip as wage payment to our workers,” Berman says.
The Histadrut has an interest in resisting the restaurants – it wants membership dues from those 100,000 workers. “If on the way there’s a trampling of small businesses that can’t defend themselves against the Histadrut juggernaut, some people will lose their life’s business and the political power of Histadrut Chairman Avi Nissenkorn will grow,” Berman says.
Gilad Zvida, an attorney at the law firm Basha Zvida Savorai, which specializes in employment relations, notes that the restaurant business is built on tips and workers who come and go from restaurant to restaurant.
“It follows that many rights are violated because there’s no organized legislation. The workers don’t organize, there are no collective employment agreements. Everything’s wide open,” he says.
“The waiter is the employer’s shop window, and it seems disproportionate that on top of the trays he carries, he also carries the company’s employment costs. Tips are for the waiter. They’re not supposed to be for the employer. The waiters aren’t partners in the business, they’re weak, salaried employees.”
A labor court ruling from 2005 recommended that employers negotiate with the Histadrut and iron out rules, but it didn’t work, Zvida says. “Yet the legislator doesn’t intervene. It’s like a hot potato that nobody wants to touch,” he says.
One achievement the protesters can boast is making waves beyond Café Noir. Recently the social activist Alon-Lee Green posted on Facebook about employment terms at the chain R2M, which owns restaurants including Brasserie, Delicatessen and Coffee Bar.
Green listed workers ‘ grievances, elaborating on how workers are paid by sharing the tips among employees. He also discussed failures to pay salaries, overtime, late-night and Shabbat hours, and pensions. Green doesn’t work at R2M but in 2008 helped organize workers at Coffee Bean, a chain that has since closed.
“It’s easy to claim that the workers are spoiled, but restaurants have the most exploited workers in Israel,” Green says. “It’s hard to organize the whole industry because of the churn rate and obstinate employers.”
Paying other workers from waiters’ tips sounds like a remnant of feudalism; nobody else gets workers for free, he says.