The strong social appeal of the minimum wage has lost much currency in recent years. Having once been seen as the resort of the adolescent first-time employees or the low-skilled it is now largely a nuisance to both employers and employees either as a glass ceiling or as an unnecessary expense. In the UK and the USA companies in the catering, leisure and cleaning sectors are the most likely to employ workers at or just above the minimum wage. In France, however, working in the catering industry is traditionally seen far more as a worthwhile career decision, ultimately a vocation rather than the final resort of the desperately unemployed. But careers in the restauration business in France are under the same integral threat as are the basic fresh products and local sourcing customs that have traditionally provided the financial backbone to French Cuisine.
« One of the problems here is that everyone working here is a foreigner, » says Jack, an English waiter. « Among the kitchen staff and the waiters we all earn the same minimum-wage pay-packet. The owner and his wife are the managers, they let the employees know they’re lucky to have a job. None of us really know what it is we’re entitled to and we’re afraid to ask. »
Jack’s café-restaurant is in the Latin Quarter and their main source of revenue is the steady stream of tourists who come to visit Notre Dame, the Sorbonne and the place St-Michel. He takes great pride in his work as a waiter and hopes to continue working in the French catering sector in the future.
« I empathise with my employers because all of us working here understand and share the difficulties that are implied in running a busy restaurant but at the same time as wanting to be professional our paycheques are often incomplete. This puts us into a difficult position because we don’t compromise in our dedication to the job when extra hours are asked of us or when we’re given socially difficult split shifts. »
>Olivia, waitress in a café next to the Pompidou Centre agrees with Jack on this.
« They give us split shifts, often it’ll be a four hour shift then a six hour shift with two hours in the middle, but when it’s quiet we’ll be asked to leave earlier and make up the time before our next shift. We don’t get breaks during these shifts as there’s not enough staff to cover and when we eat it has to be done on our own time. This means I physically spend more time in work than I have free time per week but am only paid for 39 hours! »
Olivia has also had problems with her employers paying her the full wage she is owed.
« When I talk to one of the managers about it they tell me to talk to another, when I talk to him I’m told i have to talk to the office about it. When I ring the office they’ll tell me they know nothing about it and I need to talk to my manager about it. It’s exasperating but there’s nothing else I can do. Very few of my friends who work in restaurants in Paris have the good fortune to work in places where they pay you well and expect you to to perform well, we mostly get all of the expectations with none of the rewards. And jobs in good places are hard to find because nobody ever leaves them, they know how lucky they are. Our customers don’t realise that the restauration business in France only recognises May 1st as a jour ferier. the rest of time, Sundays, Bank Holidays and even Christmas day or New Years Eve we’re still working for the same wage than if we were working on an ordinary week-day. »
Jake, who works as a manager in the 11th tells me that he’s often troubled by his employers’ lack of desire to hire competent people, “they prefer hiring people they can anchor to a minimum-wage contract without being fully aware of what they’re signing. With a CDI contract, when the employee walks away from it they get nothing, no social welfare and no pay-off from the employer. We have a guy now who’s basically a commis chef working on his own in the kitchen during busy periods. It’s a nightmare because he’s not even a commis, which is pretty much the lowest chef you can get, but a kitchen assistant who’s been hired to give the other chefs a night off. He’s paid the same as the guy who washes the dishes and it takes twice as long to serve our clients when he works on his own. He’s doing it because he wants the experience and when he walks away from it he can say on his cv he’s been at that position even though he’s never had any of the training.”
The situation for minimum wage workers is just as dead-end as you would expect it, even in a socialist country like France. When the government negotiated a stimulus package with the catering industry in return for slashing the VAT it was negotiated that there would be an pre-tax bonus given to certain valued employees in the sector (calculated as those earning over a specified amount), that the minimum-wage would be raised by €0.06 and that employers would recognise more official holidays and in addition a mutuelle or private health scheme all employees would be entitled to. Nobody interviewed for this article has heard anything about these measures, nor do they expect to. They all tell me exactly the same thing, summed up best by Olivia:
“Nobody could honestly expect anyone who hires most of their staff on the minimum-wage to do anything but the utmost minimum to keep them interested in doing a better job. We work hard here because we take pride in what we do and not because we’re paid to do a good job.”