Hungry for profits, TGI Fridays has axed meals for its staff in the middle of a cost of living crisis. But its workers are gearing up to struggle, not to suffer.

In its past few decades, TGI Fridays has mounted considerable success. Boasting 869 locations across more than 50 countries, it is one of the most identifiable restaurant brands in the world, with its highest-grossing franchise located in Leicester Square, London. Despite its British workers contributing to its huge profits, fair pay has been an uphill struggle.

Take an incident in January 2018, where staff were given two days’ notice that all tips received from card payments were to be cut by 20 percent, with this money to be redistributed to kitchen staff (in lieu of a meaningful wage increase for these vital back-of-house workers). Waiting staff were made considerably worse off, with some losing as much as £200 a month, and this anger culminated in Britain’s first-ever TGI Fridays strike, with angry workers manning pickets from Milton Keynes to Manchester.

In that same year, the chain was named and shamed by the government for failing to pay workers the Living Wage after having been found to have short-changed 2,302 workers to the tune of £59,348. Despite facing intense pressure from managers and company bosses, the strikes continued for months, with Unite members voting unanimously for industrial action in a second ballot. Eventually, the workers were successful, gaining greater control over their tip distribution and capping unpaid job experience to one hour—a major win for hospitality staff in a sector where gains are few.

But in the years since, conditions have worsened considerably. Yesterday, TGIF’s bosses made the shocking choice of axing staff meals for workers—a deplorable decision at any time, but a particularly cruel one during a cost-of-living crisis. Previously, workers on double shifts (above ten hours) were entitled to a paid shift meal during their unpaid break.

Following the 2018 strikes, there was an increase in the shift meal allowance to account for an increase in meal prices (now, a meal at the chain costs more than an hour’s work for a typical TGIF worker). But with soaring food inflation, the scheme is set to be scrapped entirely.

Alex, a waitress at TGIF for a number of years, is dismayed at the company’s retrograde step. Staff like Alex will be forced to either pay the company more than an hour’s worth of wages for food or spend their unpaid breaks running around trying to find cheaper food elsewhere. ‘It’s not as easy as it sounds,’ she tells Tribune. ‘Some of our stores are out in the sticks or located on motorways. Why should we be forced to spend half our breaks running around to eat? On a busy shift, we’re already walking multiple miles. Even on a slow shift, I’ll often walk five miles.’

Food prep is also not an option for many at TGIFs. ‘If you’re working in a restaurant where your shift doesn’t finish till two in the morning, most of the shops aren’t open. You’ll end up spending time prepping food when you get in, and you won’t sleep until God knows when. You’re then expected to get back in the morning. Most of the people entitled to the meal are working horrible shifts—back-to-back doubles at really unsociable hours.’

A cleaner, waiter, chef, bartender and manager at differing points, Tom has worked a variety of roles in his time at TGI Fridays. For him, the recent announcement is part of a broader anti-worker culture prevalent at TGIF. ‘Stores have broken equipment that doesn’t get fixed. Staff are being stretched further and further with skeleton crews on most shifts.’ As a result, Tom says, workers are forced to deal with a huge wave of complaints from customers over slow service, heaping even more pressure on them.

With food inflation at nearly 20 percent—the worst for 45 years—the denial of a free meal will negatively impact hundreds of TGIF employees, many of whom are on minimum wage and are already living hand-to-mouth. Tom explains: ‘There are people that depend on that shift meal—from a 16-year-old assistant cleaning tables to a chef. Some of them are on benefits and find it very hard to make ends meet.’ In the absence of decent pay, a ‘paid for’ meal was some respite for many at TGIF. ‘Times are hard’, he says. ‘But TGIs seem more interested in satiating the needs of shareholders while taking food from those who form the company’s very backbone.’

Alex estimates that if team members on minimum wage work a double shift once a week, they will lose approximately 48 shift meals a year—the equivalent of a full week’s pay. ‘It might not sound like a lot, but for workers on minimum wage, it’s the difference between filling your car with petrol or feeding yourself for a week.’

Tribune understands that the changes haven’t been announced to team members but have been communicated to managers who’ve informed their teams. ‘Apparently, the line from execs is that meals are being taken away because of “fraud”. Team members are only entitled to them if they work ten-hour shifts.’ To them, he says, that means that managers who ‘don’t follow the policy to the letter are seen to be committing “fraud” in the eyes of the execs.’

TGIF attempts to present a public image of a restaurant that transcends work. ‘It’s their motto’, points out Alex, ‘the Friday Family. But you don’t starve your family, do you? It’s just a real kick to morale, to be honest.’ This move by TGI is not an isolated incident. It speaks to a wider problem across hospitality and the gig economy in general, where precarious workers, often young mothers, students and migrant workers, face exploitation at every corner.

Unionisation is undoubtedly a challenge—particularly in a sector with such high staff turnover and where union-busting is all too common. Those who spoke to Tribune worry deeply about the future of their jobs but are determined to demand better for themselves and their colleagues. ‘Bosses exploit the naivety of workers—this is not the only hospitality job that I have had where this has happened. I hear horror stories across the sector on a daily basis. I think the more that people become aware of what a union does, there’s a better chance of standing up for our rights and maybe making a difference.’

This is a sentiment echoed by Bryan Simpson, an organiser for Unite Hospitality, who is urging the company to pull its decision back or face a summer of chaos. ‘For a multi-national restaurant chain to scrap free and subsidised food for their workers during a cost-of-living crisis is nothing but sheer corporate greed.’ Soon, Unite members in TGIs—who, unlike many workers in their sector, have experience of industrial disputes—will be meeting nationally to determine their collective response. Simpson assures Tribune readers: ‘All legal and industrial options will be considered’.

A spokesperson for TGI Fridays gave a statement to Tribune:

‘To provide more equitable benefits to everyone in our teams, we have made the decision to remove free shift meals for team members working 10 hours or more from 1st May 2023. We still offer all team members a range of industry leading benefits including 50% off our entire food menu and free soda during working hours, plus 50% off for up to 6 people which they can use all year round as many times as they wish.

‘However, we do recognise that these are challenging economic times and this will impact our teams. As part of our ongoing efforts to ensure colleague wellbeing, we are exploring a partnership with Wagestream, the financial wellbeing app, to offer extra support to our employees.’

Unite Hospitality has launched an online petition calling for TGI Fridays to reinstate staff meals.

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