Stephanie Carolina Abdelnour Suarez worked in the food and drink industry in Dublin in 2015 and 2016. In less than two years, she says, she did three unpaid work trials.
One was for four hours, which she says is very common. She didn’t have a big problem with that, especially because she got a job out of it.
But the other two were each for a week, she says, and she was not kept on afterwards. In one of those cases she knew she wouldn’t be paid, but in the other, she thought she would be.
Suarez was annoyed to find herself empty-handed and out of work. Someone advised her to take that case to the Workplace Relations Commission, but she was having health problems, and never got around to it, she says.
“It’s not just that bakery – loads of places do that in Ireland, and it’s really unfair,” she says.
The Workplace Relations Commission says there is no exemption from minimum wage legislation for work trials. All hours worked must be paid at the minimum wage or above.
But several restaurants managers say they need to ask prospective waiters and waitresses to do unpaid work trials to get them up to speed, and to see if they are a good fit for the job.
Unpaid trials in Dublin vary in length from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks, according to workers and employers.
A man who worked in Spice Cottage, an Indian restaurant in Dún Laoghaire, said he didn’t get paid for the first six days. “They call it training but they make you work all the time,” he said.
Spice Cottage manager Sue Kaur said it depends on the person, but she usually doesn’t pay workers the full minimum wage during the first three weeks.
“For the first week, they don’t do anything, we just kind of fully supervise them, go through one-to-one training,” Kaur said.
They come in for four hours a day, probably on three days a week, for those first four weeks, she says. In the first week, they might start to work a little on the third day, depending how much they’d picked up, she says.
Once the person starts to get the hang of the job in the second week, she’ll pay them €30 a night, she says. Then, in the third week, she’ll pay them around €50 a night, to encourage them to stick around.
She’ll only start to pay them minimum wage once they are into their fourth week, she says. A lot of people quickly decide that the job isn’t for them, Kaur says.
Steve, a manager who answered the phone at Havana Tapas Bar on South Great George’s Street but declined to give his surname, said they don’t pay staff for their training shifts. “They’d be training for maybe two shifts,” he said, but it can vary.
Havana gives them some basic training and then lets them work for a bit, to see how they get on, he said. The tapas bar doesn’t pay for the training, which could last for two hours, or four or five hours, he says.
“By about the second time of training, you kind of get a vibe if the person’s any good or not,” he said. “Some people are no good, so we just don’t continue. I’m sorry, but that’s just the situation.”
Getting a Chance
Some employers said they felt they were doing workers a favour by offering them unpaid trials, especially if they didn’t have much experience.
Kaur, at Spice Cottage, says she thinks her system is fair, and gives a chance to people who need training and wouldn’t get a start otherwise.
“The people who have experience, who have worked somewhere else before, we pay them straight away. It depends who do you get,” she said. “Because there’s a shortage of staff, usually you don’t get experienced people.”
Piero, who also declined to give his surname, the manager at Voila, a cafe in Baggot Street, says he sometimes offers unpaid trials to young workers without experience. “It depends,” he says. “Usually we pay the minimum wage even for a trial.”
Some people ask for trials, he says, because they don’t have experience and fear he’ll think he’d have to invest too much time in training them, so he won’t hire them. So they want a chance to prove themselves.
Whereas in other industries job applicants spend a lot of time preparing for and doing interviews, in hospitality it’s best to just give someone a trial for a few hours, he says.
Steve, at Havana Tapas Bar, says he has to try people out, in part, to see if their English is good enough as a lot of them are not native English speakers.
No one has ever complained about not being paid, says Steve. Havana might have to give five or six people trials to find one that’s good enough to keep on, he says, so they couldn’t afford to pay everyone who comes in for a trial.
Steve hasn’t really looked into the issue of whether unpaid work trials are legal, but he’s very upfront with people about the set-up, he says. “I make it clear before. I say we’re going to give you a trial and we’re not going to be able to pay for it and we’ll see how it goes.”
People are happy to do unpaid trials and often say on their CVs that they’re available for a free trial, Steve said. “If they’re willing to do it themselves, there should be no issue,” he says.
Adrian Cummins, the chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, says the practice of bringing people in for unpaid trials of more than a couple of hours is not widespread.
“I would say whoever is telling you that it is [happening] in a lot of restaurants, I’ve never heard of it, we totally oppose it,” he says. “There are some lads out there that are making stuff up as they go along.”
The RAI has taken a strong stance against the practice, Cummins said. Anyone paying less than the minimum wage is breaking the law, and could face inspection and penalties, he said.
“Minimum wage, you have to pay it,” Cummins says. (Unless there’s a contractual agreement such as an internship; there are schemes for internships in place in the service industry, he says.)
The National Minimum Wage Act does not contain any exemption for work trials, said a spokesperson for the Workplace Relations Commission.
So anyone who’s not being paid in accordance with the National Minimum Wage Act can make a complaint and request an inspection.
If the complaint is found to be correct, the complainant is entitled to the wages not paid and any reasonable expenses incurred in connection with the dispute, the spokesperson said.
In 2016, the food and drinks industry was responsible for the largest number of breaches of employment regulations of any industry: 343, according to the Workplace Relations Commission.
In the same year, the industry was also responsible for the second highest amount of unpaid wages: the Workplace Relations Commission found employees had not been paid €332,903 they were owed.
— with additional reporting by Lois Kapila