Greg Wright: Are teenagers being exploited by unscrupulous bosses?

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YOU’RE never too young to acquire a strong work ethic.

However, in these straitened times, many youngsters are still finding it hard to find a job. Some of those who do find work are, it seems, vulnerable to exploitation.

This week, I was contacted by a respected academic from Leeds, who painted a worrying picture of the reality of working life for her teenage son. Her observations raise broader questions about whether those on the lowest rung of the career ladder need extra protection.

The woman, who is a senior lecturer at a Yorkshire university, told me: “My son, aged 16, has recently secured a job as a waiter in a local restaurant and I have found his working conditions to be questionable, and wondered about the extent to which this is pervasive.”

According to the woman, her son had sought work at 15 retail and hospitality outlets, and the only place to offer him a post was a restaurant.

He was asked to work 12 hours for free while he was being ‘trained’, and before he could begin to earn the minimum wage for his age of £3.79 an hour, the woman said.

She added: “Most concerning, is that waiting staff are not permitted to keep tips – if money is left on the table, the waiting staff run to grab it before management see it, but if they see it, they demand that it is handed over. They refuse to give staff any tips left via credit card payments.

“If customers knew that their tips were not going to the waiting staff, but rather straight to management, then they may think twice about leaving anything.

“I am left wondering about the extent of this practice across our region, and whether young people - willing to work hard and earn money through decent means - are seen as easy targets for restaurant owners. I would very much like to know which restaurants actually give customers’ tips to their staff, and which just pocket it.”

The female lecturer believes restaurants should be forced by law to state how tips are managed, so customers know precisely who will be pocketing the cash they leave to reward good service.

She added: “When appointing new staff, restaurants should be obliged to advise them of their tipping policy.

“Ideally, staff should know to whom they could whistle blow if this was not adhered to – but this could be very hard for anyone worried about losing their job, let alone a teenager who already knows they are the lowest in the hierarchy. There does need to be a cultural shift driven by customers habitually asking their waiter or waitress if tips go to staff and then they can at least act with awareness. There should also be a minimum number of unpaid training hours, so that young people are protected from exploitation.”

It is, of-course, heartening to know that so many Yorkshire firms are in a position to give young people their first introduction to the world of work.

Hiring staff - especially if you run a small business - is extremely risky.

This risk increases when you are taking on teenagers who have no track record of working in your sector. They really are unknown quantities.

Without training, they cannot be allowed to deal directly with customers. But, given their inexperience and lack of employment rights, it’s inevitable that teenagers are more likely to be exploited by unscrupulous bosses.

At the very least, the hours of unpaid training should be limited by law and all restaurants should have a transparent tipping policy. The absence of such a policy offends every basic notion of fairness.

The rewards for providing great customer service should go to those who are responsible for delivering it. If nothing else, our cautionary tale should prick a few consciences. If we want Yorkshire to be known as a fair and child-friendly place we need to do more to protect teenagers in the workplace.