Friday, 8 January 2010

Holiday Message

Ideological Statement: Imposing a "public holiday" surcharge on cafe customers is a political - not a commercial - decision.

IT’S the little things that tell the larger stories; the details which make up the big picture.

How many times over the holiday period have you seen those irritating notices posted on the doors and windows of restaurants and cafes, informing you that a 15-20 percent "surcharge" will be added to your purchases because of the Holidays Act?

I don’t know about you, but whenever I see such a notice, I turn on my heel and go in search of an alternative eatery. According to the vast majority of restaurateurs and cafe-owners who don’t impose these surcharges, it’s what most people do.

So, what’s the point? Why post these notices; why go to the trouble and expense of printing up a special menu; if, as likely as not, all it does is drive potential customers out of your establishment and into one of your competitors? Does the surcharge cover the cost of your lost trade? Probably not. Does it contribute to your enterprise’s store of goodwill? Definitely not. So, why do it?

The answer, of course, is ideological. It’s all about politics.

The intelligent - and economically rational - course of action for any proprietor operating in the hospitality industry is obvious. The entirely predictable cost of hiring workers to operate a business on statutory holidays can be very simply factored into its overall cost structure, and recovered over the course of the financial year.

But, if one’s principal objective is to make an ideological statement, then absorbing the extra cost of operating during the holiday season is entirely the wrong way to go.

You want people to think about the payment of time-and-a-half to your employees. You want people to question the necessity of giving them a day-in-lieu for working on a public holiday. Making them pay an extra 15-20 percent for their Eggs Benedict and Flat White is your way of making them share your anger. You want them to fuss and grumble while they’re waiting for their order - and scowl at the waitress when she delivers it.

But to what purpose?

Simple. You wish to make it clear to your customers that, as far as you’re concerned, how much your employees are paid, their conditions of employment, and the number of hours they’re contracted to work are matters to be negotiated between you and them - and nobody else.

You want your customers to know exactly how you feel about the state sticking its nose into what, for you, is a private business relationship. The cost of labour, and the terms and conditions under which it is bought and sold is something for market participants to decide - not politicians.

And that’s what the surcharge achieves: it registers how deeply the hospitality industry resents this sort of heavy-handed government intervention in the operation of private business enterprises. If it requires a little lost trade to make the point - then so be it.

There are, of course, two things very wrong with this picture.

The first is that, in spite of all the protestations to the contrary by laissez-faire capitalist economists, the employment relationship is not an equal one.

People do not sell their labour unless they have to. Most of the things we do - from cooking the evening meal to reading our children a bedtime story - are done without thought of payment. We engage in paid labour only in order to live. Which is why those with the power to offer or withhold paid employment always enjoy an advantage over those who come asking for a wage.

The second thing is that, in the hospitality industry’s picture, human-beings become means to an end - mere instruments of its will. People are torn from their social context and stripped of every human attribute not immediately useful to their employer. They’re no longer members of families. The lives they lead outside working-hours count for nothing. They’re just units of labour: expendable, interchangeable, and worth only what the market dictates.

A world in which people become means, rather than ends, is a world become suddenly unsafe for everything that contributes to a truly human civilisation.

Those who give notice of a holiday surcharge might as well hoist the plague-flag above their business. Their greed has become a sickness.

Take care not to become infected - stay away.

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 8 January 2010.


Lew said...

Chris, as a veteran of the hostpitality industry from those hazy days before anyone even thought of a surcharge I find myself, for once, in complete agreement with you. Happy new year.


Chris Trotter said...

A fine way to begin the year, Lew! Many thanks.

Joseph said...

an excellent post, Chris. May i reprint it in the Campaign for a Living Wage newsletter?

Chris Trotter said...

Feel free to re-publish, Joe - just make sure you attribute the original publishers.

Bevanjs said...

I have no trouble at all supporting small businesses like good cafes. The surcharge is a token at best per consumer for a treat on a public holiday. I appreciate the availability and that has value.

Owning a cafe is a rubbish and risky way to make money, I don't understand the drive it takes but respect the punt they've taken and the energy it takes to run and build a small business and near inevitably become an employer, creating income for others. Personally I'm a risk averse salary earner.

I think your thoughts as written are too black and white by far.

peterquixote said...

the Motel industry has a similar affliction,

Notices outside like :

" affordable rates"
what does that affordable rates mean? affordable to me or affordable to you or affordable to old Brian Edwards?

" rates from $95 " this means probably $120 upwards

" spend a night not a fortune"
this means this motel is twenty years out of date and horrible

"Wireless Internet "
thats after you pay $130 for the room and a the bloody milk you don't want you get to pay another fee for Internet


Cactus Kate said...

If eating out was price sensitive then surely keeping prices at the normal would create more patronage as everyone else has the day off - more potential customers - more money in anyway.

The surcharge is stupid but to be honest Chris when sitting out in the sun drinking good alcohol with friends overlooking the crystal clear summer waters - who really gives a f**k?

NZ doesn't have that irritating permanent 10% "surcharge" or "service charge" on their bar bills that other countries have. So for a few days a year it does?

You have made the best point of all - you don't HAVE to go out on a public holiday so if you don't want to then stay at home.

Chris Trotter said...

Thank-you Kate, but having read your account of holidaying among the Germans and the Russians (not to mention your stimulating method of travelling to the swimming-pool) I'm pretty sure that surcharges, of any kind, don't really bother you at all.

Cactus Kate said...

Good point Chris. But if you don't like surcharges it helps just to get pissed. Then when you sign, you don't get so upset. I will show you next time I am back in Auckland if you wish.

Chris Trotter said...

It's a date, Kate. I shall write it off as an educational business expense!

Tauhei Notts said...

Some of my friends in the hospitality industry do not open on statutory holidays.
(a) It annoys the regular customers too much if there is a surcharge added.
(b) If no surcharge is added they go broke.
If they try to raise their prices throughout the year, to accommodate those incredible statutory holiday pay rates, their prices quickly become uncompetitive, and they go broke.
Basic supply - demand economics is too tiresome for many left wing bloggers to attempt to comprehend. But you are smart enough to realise that any luncheon outlay with Cactus Kate is a genuine deductible educational expense.

Anonymous said...

"incredible pay rates"?

What is incredible, 'Tauhei' is that people like you expect people to give up their holidays for no extra compensation (such as a little extra in their pay packets).