LONDON has recently overtaken Tokyo and Paris to be the world's most expensive city for eating out, so I've read. I've never been to Tokyo, but the last time I saw Paris, which was a few years ago, you could still get a good meal for your money, living up to France's reputation for eating well, even at the cheaper places where I eat (though not in some grim banlieus, I must admit).
Higher prices here in London may be keeping up with big City bonuses at the expense of the ordinary person facing pay "restraint". But I expect what's happening in London goes for the rest of the country to a large extent. As the chains spread along high streets depleted of decent pubs and family-owned cafes, it seems the owners are not only making you pay more for your meal and drinks, while paying as little as they can in wages to often vulnerable migrant labour (a friend of mine remarked that if you wanted to know where the world's latest trouble spots were you only had to listen to the accents of the staff at a Tottenham Court Road pizza place).
They are getting the customers to contribute unwittingly so they can afford to pay the legal minimum wage. When we leave a tip to show appreciation of good service we may have wondered whether we were making up for low pay, and was it right that people working hard should have to look for gratuities? It helps bosses keep pay low, and means staff lose money when they are off sick or on holiday.
But it has gone further than that. Restaurant owners, and we are talking big-name firms, not some backstreet cafe, are pocketing the money paid as service charge or tips on your plastic, to boost their profit margins. A survey by the Unite trade unions among waiting staff found that a majority of restaurant employers help themselves to a share of the tips.
(Unite calls 'time' on restaurant rip-off, TGWU Record, November/December 2007)
The TGWU Record reports how union members picketed branches of Smollensky's and Pizza Express to expose what's going on and urge customers to question management about where the money is going. They collected signatures for a support petition from the public.
Union organiser Dave Turnbull said "Many customers would be horrified if they knew their service change went towards paying hard-working waiters and waitresses the minimum wage, rather than as an extra reward for good service. Tips and service charges should always be considered an addition to a decent living wage.
"As well as urging a change in the minimum wage law to stop employers taking advantage, customers can also help by asking the restaurant where the tips go".
Firms cited by union members include Pizza Express, Garfunkels, Deep Pan Pizza and Frankie & Bennies, as well as hotels. I'm not in the habit of using any of them, being loyal to the family-owned cafe, the chippies, and neighbourhood curry house, and I've not thought of tipping at Wetherspoon. But I'm happy to draw attention to yet another tale of rip-off London, and support this campaign by my union.