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Vienna | 21.4.2008 | 15:27 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

 
 
Don't Worry About The Waiter
 
"Boy!" said the red-faced man.

"Yes, Sir?" I asked, scampering eargerly across the room and giving him the most sincere expression that a man can give while wearing a red and white shirt, broad black braces and a giant sombrero.

"Boy! This steak's very small."

Small! It was the size of an elephant's foot-print. Believe me, you could have surfed on that piece of beef. I took a deep breath. "I believe it is the regular size, sir."

"I'm telling you, boy, that they're much bigger in Texas."

Now I never liked being called 'boy' even when I was a boy. But now that I was a 20 years old man with voting rights and a driving licence, now that I was an educated man studying literature in the chic capital of France, I liked it much less.
 
 
Paying the Rent/ Paying the Tuition fees
  So why didn't I sock him one on the jaw in the tradition an English football enthusiast? Well, as I keep telling everyone, I've read the biography of Ghandi.

But why didn't I at least remonstrate with him? Why didn't I tell this man, who could think of nothing better to do with his time than order over-priced steak in an international eatery, that I didn't like his jowly face, his abrupt manner, the way he dressed or even the way he slurped his fizzy drink? Was it the ridiculous clothes I was wearing myself that made me so shy and reticent?

No.

I held my tongue because I desperately needed the money. Like any student I needed to pay the rent. No rent, no study. Students need to pay tuition fees. Studying costs money. Studying costs time. Working evenings serving drinks is often the only way to manage both the books and the bills.

And say what you will of multinational restaurant chains with bizarre dress requirements for their staff, but I have a lot of respect for them. They are quick to hire you when you're new in town and they're slow to fire you, even when, like me, you trip up on a bag and spill a tray of eight meaty dishes over a group of Japanese business men.

 
 
Like It or Lump It
  As for working conditions, you either like it or lump it, don't you. Hauptsache the money keeps coming in. I had to accept being called "boy!" and, more seriously, I had to accept working for 5 years in a thick cloud of tobacco smoke.

It'd be wrong for me to moan, though. If I had reached extreme penury, I could have swallowed my pride and called good old "papa". The same can't be said about some of my colleagues in Paris, who were mostly immigrants from North and West Africa and worked 8 hour shifts.

They wouldn't dream of turning down the job because of the very real health risk of passive smoking, of course. The short of cash rarely think so long term. But the point is, in real terms, they couldn't turn it down.


 
 
An Omelette
  Things are different in my old bars in France and northern England now. But not in Austria, where, I read today, the government is sticking hard to its compromise solution, perhaps because of worrying data from Germany, perhaps partly because of the fact that according at least to this article the Health Ministry publishes figures provided by the tobacco industry, and certainly because, I have to admit, that the majority of the population is in favour of this 'compromise'.

But is it really a compromise or is it a sacrifice.

As the cult figure Jose Mourinho told the press last Autumn: "No heggs, no homelette". It seems the rights of one of the weakest sections of the population, those needed part time work, are being sarificed here.

We don't like to talk about it, but waiting staff don't have the same protection as the rest of the country. Their status is somehow different from the rest of the working population. Their health seems to count less than that of office workers.

 
 
Protection
  However, workers will be given some 'protection'. According to a proposal from Rudolf Kaske of the service industry's trade union, waiters and bar staff will be able to choose between working in a smoking bar or a non-smoking establishment.

It sounds nice but can you really imagine that working? A hundred workers at the Café de Provinz?

Kaske also says that bar workers and waiting staff should be given more holidays and have medical checks on their lungs every two years. I don't know about you, but if someone told me that through my work I'd become one of the 25% of the population with Chronic Lung Disease, being offered a few more days off to breathe in country air might seem a wee bit of an insult.

Before you point this out: Yes it's true, a large proportion of waiters and bar staff smoke themselves, but I know from the admission of my own former colleagues that there is a great feeling of "if you can't beat them, you may as well join them".


 
 
2 Questions
  Now I realise that I grew up differently from people here and that probably discounts me from appreciating the true genius of 'Austrian Solutions'. And I do realise how condescending it can seem to be a guest in another country and then try to tell the people how to run their country. The colonialists did that, as one of my colleagues likes to point out. So I won't. But for the sake of my student friend who suffers migranes while clearing dishes in a smoked out bar, I'll ask two questions:

Are worker's rights being compromised to soothe the fears of the owners?

And, without consulting the Ancient Greeks about the true meaning of free choice, can you really claim that a hard up student, or hard up anybody for that matter, has the choice to take or leave part-time work in gastronomy?
 
 
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