The waiters who took on the Ivy restaurant — and won

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This is the story of two young migrant women who worked at the Ivy restaurant in Dublin. The former waiters have taken over the restaurant, which is part of a major British chain, after it fired them for joining a union. The Employment Tribunal determined last week that Julia Marciniak and Lenka Laiermanova had been unfairly dismissed by Ivy (aka Troia UK Restaurants Ltd) for union activities.

It’s been a long road for butler Laiermanova and Marciniak since they were fired in March 2019. The case was an appeal, backed by their union Unite, of a 2021 Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) dismissing their wrongful dismissal complaint.

Lenka Laiermanova outside the Ivy after winning her unfair dismissal case in the Labor Court. Photography: Dara MacDonail

Both experienced waiters, they worked at the acclaimed Dawson Street restaurant in Dublin shortly after it opened in the summer of 2018. Hired at hourly rates of €10.55 and €12 plus 80% tip (20% ranging from staff to house), the setup quickly turned sour for Ivy workers when tips and service charges were withheld and used instead to pay a portion of those contracted hourly rates, making up the difference between minimum wage and their stated salary.

This company-wide structure was clarified in labor court by Sara Conway of Troia: service charges, gratuities, and gratuities are centrally controlled and used to pay staff; any excess money “carries over”; and any shortfall made up by the company.

When Marciniak and Laiermanova raised this and other issues with management and came to nothing, they went to TD Joan Collins, who raised it in the Dáil, and joined Unite. The story of restaurant tipping was covered in The Irish Times.

Some 60 pages of detailed labor court documents tell a convoluted story, showing the vulnerability of precarious workers to mistreatment and dismissal on a whim before they are protected by legislation.

This tale involves several suspensions; rules that only managers could accept payments from customers; secret recording of conversations; management proposes to hold a disciplinary meeting in a nearby bar; an alleged customer complaint that was never filed; unsigned and undated (and irrelevant) witness statements; and an incident (the reason Ivy claimed to have been fired) on March 1, 2019, when it was alleged that they had denied a customer the opportunity to tip a credit card and that tips could not be cash only.

Julia Marciniak outside the Ivy on Dawson Street in Dublin.  The labor court found that she had been unfairly dismissed by the restaurant.  Photography: Alan Betson

Julia Marciniak outside the Ivy on Dawson Street in Dublin. The labor court found that she had been unfairly dismissed by the restaurant. Photography: Alan Betson

Marciniak and Laiermanova had encouraged around 20 workers to join Unite, which sought to bargain collectively. But the court found that manager Jamie Belton’s claim that he was unaware they were active members of the union was not credible. He also ruled that, on a balance of probabilities, Belton deliberately submitted a factually incorrect report as part of the disciplinary process.

“Fatally Imperfect”

Employment Tribunal Vice President Louise O’Donnell said the disciplinary proceedings were “fatally flawed” and the evidence supported the workers’ claim that the misconduct allegations hid the real reason for their dismissal.

‘As humiliating and stressful as it was, it was also on my mind, they must be scared. I felt, well, I have a little power’

Talking to Marciniak and Laiermanova this week, they seem happy with the result. “It was intimidating,” says Marciniak, originally from Poland. She remembers working at the Ivy, how it was obvious they were getting organized, “management watching closely, always someone above your shoulders. You can feel it dividing you.

She also recalls how she felt when she was suspended, “being escorted out of the building like some kind of thief, not being allowed to talk to co-workers. As humiliating and stressful as it is, it was also in my head, they must have been scared. I felt, well, I had power.

When the first problems arose at the Ivy, she thought, “Who will care about a few young migrant workers in transitional jobs? But she was spurred on by support from Unite, by public support, by articles in The Irish Times and by exposure of ‘unfair’ tipping practices. Joan Collins highlighted the practice of counseling at the Dáil, and Brendan Ogle of Unite “went above and beyond to help us,” says Marciniak.

Lenka Laiermanova and Julia Marciniak, the two fired servers, protested outside the Ivy in 2019.

Lenka Laiermanova and Julia Marciniak protesting outside the Ivy in 2019.

Their case highlights weaknesses in worker protections, she says, that don’t show up until a year into a job.

Marciniak says that for workers less than a year in a job, “if you ask about your breaks, you can be fired. See you!’

Laiermanova, from the Czech Republic, echoes this: “The one-year rule should be scrapped,” because employers “can do whatever they want and give no reason.

Why not just have a three-month trial period” before unfair dismissal law kicks in? “It’s ridiculous. There are no benefits for the employees, just for the employer: they can fire you on the spot for no reason, but you still have to give notice.

Marciniak says that for workers less than a year in a job, “if you ask about your breaks, you can be fired. See you!”

Laiermanova hopes their experience will help other workers and “be a bit of a game-changer”. She says “we didn’t think we would win, but if you don’t try…”

The four-day hearing at the Labor Court was more thorough than the WRC, with more witnesses. She now feels vindicated. “We had nothing to fear because we were just telling the truth and something had to be done. And we had great support, from the union, from the activists, from our lawyer. Everyone was there for us.”

After being fired by the Ivy, Marciniak worked at a few different restaurants and, having learned the strength of being in a union, now works for Unite as a hospitality and tourism coordinator. Laiermanova was pregnant when she was made redundant and it was difficult to find a job, but she now works in the restaurant at the Devlin Hotel in Ranelagh (where she says tips are split evenly between staff).

Lenka Laiermanova was pregnant when she was fired.  Photography: Dara MacDonail

Lenka Laiermanova was pregnant when she was fired. Photography: Dara MacDonail

‘Operation’

For Marciniak, “Ivy’s whole business model is based on exploitation. Even now, service fees are still used to pay contract salaries. It’s a loophole in the new laws that misleads customers about where the money is going.

She is aware that while a bill currently in the works protects tips, it leaves the status quo on service charges, which are legally part of normal business income.

The Ivy in Dublin still adds a 12.5% ​​’service charge’ to all tables, which it is legally allowed to use to pay contract wages; it is discretionary and diners can request that it be removed, without affecting workers’ wages or tips.

Lenka Laiermanova now works in the restaurant at the Devlin Hotel in Ranelagh.  Photography: Dara MacDonail

Lenka Laiermanova now works in the restaurant at the Devlin Hotel in Ranelagh. Photography: Dara MacDonail

As well as a win for both workers, the decision is seen as quite significant in wider industrial relations. Findings of wrongful termination related to union activities are rare, according to Industrial Relations News. Labor lawyer Richard Grogan says: “This was a very important decision by the Labor Court. The question of union membership is an issue that some employers misunderstand and do not see the danger of a dismissal for union mobilization.

The significance is that while the unfair dismissal law only comes into effect after one year with an employer, it has exceptions, including union activity and pregnancy, that some employers are unaware of. “This is an important decision because it protects employees who join a union” and seek to defend their rights.

At the time of the layoff, Grogan points out, “the Ivy was on the front line on the tipping issue.” It is “unusual to have someone doing union work with less than 12 months of service, and after that employers know they are protected. It’s a substantial price for an unusual case,” and has implications for others in precarious employment, he says.

Brendan Ogle of Unite says these are “groundbreaking decisions. When they joined Unite, Ivy set out to retrieve them. And it got them. He fired them for union membership and activity, using constructed circumstances. That’s a big thing to say, and I can say it now with confidence, thanks to judgment.

“The penalty is completely insignificant to them, they are still a successful business making so much profit.” The only damage to them is the reputation’

The Ivy was ordered to pay nearly €10,000 (€7,924 for Laiermanova, €2,016 for Marciniak); this is compensation for lost revenue, not a penalty. “Money is nothing,” says Marciniak. “The penalty is completely insignificant to them, they are still a successful business making so much profit. The only damage to them is reputation.

She says their customers have become “younger, less prominent…some Irish are boycotting it now”.

Overall, she says, “If you ask for help, if you want to bring something unfair to light, you will get support.”

The Ivy was asked by The Irish Times to comment on the case for this article, but chose not to.

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