Restaurant workers protest against attacks on wage and condition protections

The Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland (MRCI) held a protest in Galway this afternoon against what it sees as attempts to cut the minimum wage in the catering industry. 

The protest, which was organised by the MRCI founded Restaurant Workers Action Group, was held at 1pm outside Supermacs restaurant in Galway's Eyre Square. It follows on from the launch of the MRCI's campaign for the reform of Ireland's work permit system earlier this week. 

Supermac's is part of the Quick Service Food Alliance (QSFA), and according to the MRCI it is leading industry efforts in challenging wage protections for its workers. According to the MRCI, restaurant owners and industry groups have been calling for a €1 per hour cut in the national minimum wage, a weakening of the standards laid out in the Joint Labour Committee (JLC) and a challenge to the right of the JLC to determine working conditions.

"[Supermacs] are not losing money," said Delphine O'Keeffe of the MRCI. "They are trying to squeeze the most vulnerable." Figures show that Supermacs saw its pre-tax profits quadruple last year. "[Workers] are already under pressure," said O'Keeffe. "Any more cuts would be disastrous."

This is the second such protest organised by the MRCI's Restaurant Workers Action Group. On 15 March, the group held a protest outside Supermacs on Dublin's O'Connell Street. Further protests may be planned if the QSFA continues in its challenges to the JLC.

Oktay Gencoglu, a restaurant worker in Naas originally from Turkey, said: "Restaurant workers are already suffering to support our families. Our hours have been cut and many of us have seen our wages cut too.  Any more cuts would be disastrous for us. We are counting on the government to strengthen the JLC system and defend our wages."

However, QSFA chairman John Grace told Politico that there are no proposals in place to alter the current minimum wage. "We have never called for a reduction in the minimum wage," said Grace. "We are challenging the JLC...the way it is structured is unfair and it allows for an uncompetitive market."

Grace and the QSFA believe that current minimum wage legislation negates the need for the JLC, and the JLC's control over pay and employment conditions in the catering industry is "unconstitutional". However, Grace did say that if any fairer model was proposed he and his fellow QSFA members would be willing to listen.

Deirdre Lehn, who is co-ordinating the Restaurant Workers Action Group on the behalf of the MRCI, was unconvinced by Grace's statement. "The end result of [dismantling the JLC]...will be a reduction in the minimum wage," said Lehn. "The reality is that low wage workers are struggling every day...protections such as those set out by the JLC are essential." 

The stand off between the two groups is certain continue as long as the QSFA maintains its legal challenge against the JLC.

Statement from QSFA
"The Quick Service Food Alliance (QSFA) comprises of a variety of restaurants including bigger chains like Burger King, Abrakebabra, Supermac’s and includes independently run coffee shops, restaurants and sandwich bars all over the country. The QSFA are taking a High Court constitutional challenge to the rights of the Catering Joint Labour Committee (“the Catering JLC”) and the Labour Court to effectively set minimum rates of pay and employment conditions for workers in the catering industry. This case is not about lowering conditions of employment, but challenging the method by which those rates and conditions are set, which is unfair, arbitrary and unconstitutional in the present format. 
There are already numerous pieces of legislation, enacted by the Oireachtas, the rightful law-making institution in Ireland, setting out minimum conditions of pay and employment to protect employees. Due to the economic crisis both businesses and workers have been hit hard. The arbitrary JLC system has been one of the factors which has led to job losses and the reduction in work hours you refer to.  
Our member’s employees come from many different countries, and they would like to emphasise their equal and fair treatment of all employees and commitment to this end.  The QSFA case challenges the current method of setting minimum rates of pay. These rates are then applied to all employees in the catering sector, not specifically to migrant workers. Our members are committed to fair pay and conditions for all workers but are also committed to fairness and transparency in how minimum rates and conditions are set which ultimately keeps businesses viable and thereby protects jobs."

More details on the protest are available from the MRCI website. It can be accessed here.