In praise of ‘commission only’
BY Simon Willis
To prepare 3,000 acres for an oil refinery in less than four months, a huge labour force was needed. The work was hard, but intellectually undemanding: dig ditches, foundations and drains according to a ground work plan. The pay was 250 per cent more than the hourly rate for labourers at that time. The day was divided into two, 12-hour shifts. The site was floodlit for the night shift. The men were entitled to two half-hour breaks and four 10-minute breaks for a smoke and/or toilet. The company laid on free transport to and from the site.
Meanwhile, three photographers on site recorded the progress of the work. They were also on the lookout for the man leaning on his shovel lighting up a cigarette. The teenager exchanging a few words with his mate into space was caught on film. The photographs were developed on site and taken to the managers’ office. At the end of the day, the smoker and the sociable teen were fired.
This really happened in 1949, when oil giant Esso decided to expand its refinery at Fawley on the south coast of England. The unspoken contract was simple: Do as you are being paid to do. Otherwise, you’re out.
Imagine taking snapshots and using them as evidence of laziness and slacking nowadays. The accused would whine about privacy and rights. He would argue unfair dismissal. He would weep with outrage and go on social media to blacken the reputation of his erstwhile employer. Street protests would be organised and the media would enjoy a distraction from the pandemic of the day or computer hacking by unknown parties in the Far East. Questions would be asked in parliament. Legislation would be passed enabling the less scrupulous among us to get away with doing nothing at the firm’s expense.
This writer wishes that the bored-looking individual leaning against a shop doorway could be photographed. The photo should be ample evidence of the fact that the employee is simply not pulling his or her weight. Such an attitude is hardly a boon to the business, even if it is a retail outlet for outsize clothing, red teddy bears, or glove puppets in Upper Egyptian costume. Not for these idlers a bonus, but the boot.
Farouq Goweda of Al-Ahram (January 3) wrote about an apparent injustice that filling station workers were not paid a salary, but were totally dependent on tips.
“Unfortunately, some restauranteurs are catching on and not offering payment to waiting staff,” Mr Goweda said.
If you are feeling peckish, have a look at the painting (pictured) Saturno devorando a su hijo (Saturn devouring his son) by Spanish artist Francisco Goya. This work is said to have been inspired by the Greek myth of the Titan, who was afraid that he would be usurped by one of his children, so he ate one of them. It’s bad enough when your kids scribble on new wallpaper, but señor Goya applied this gruesome image on dining room wall (!) However, this composition could be an allegory of the aftermath of a revolution, when those who have seized power are themselves seized by paranoia, fearing that their regime is being undermined by counter-revolutionaries and loyalists to the old order. The paranoid of France had their day during the Reign of Terror 1793-1794, which followed the 1789 revolution, when thousands of aristocrats and anyone believed to be associated with them were summarily put to death.
The reviled aristocracy had been a huge employer. With the elimination of dukes and counts, the servant class was out of work. Consequently, a competent cook, a couple of footmen and a former maid-of-all-work would have pooled their savings and rented a suite of rooms, of which the largest could be furnished with tables and chairs. The public could walk in, seat themselves and order a bouillon restaurant – a meat-based concoction to “restore” one’s energy. And viola! A sure-fire commercial success. Menus became more varied and diners could look forward to service worthy of a recently beheaded duke or count.
Clearing one’s plate, however, was considered ‘bad form’. So was consuming all the wine in the bottle. Customers would leave a little food on their dish and at least one-quarter of the wine was left in the bottle. After closing, that food and drink would be consumed by the cook, footmen and maid-of-all-work. No salary. If the food and service were top-notch, they survived. If a customer did drink all the wine, he would leave a small sum of money, known as pour-boire (for drink), i.e. a tip. For almost 150 years, restaurant staff lived on tips. And a good thing, too!
In the quest for a Christmas gift for my wife, I encountered an old hag chewing gum, exposing her oral cavity in the process, and sitting behind a cash register. No greeting. No acknowledgement of my presence. Not even a challenge. I would not have minded if she sprang to her feet a crouched and hissed like a Gollum of the retail world. As I passed by this creature, I could even hear her mastication, lubricated by sulphuric acid or something equally vile. I found an assistant who looked compos mentis and described to her what I was looking for. She directed me upstairs, but my way was partially blocked by a younger employee. After a successful negotiation, albeit hindered by raucous chat from idle young females masquerading as shop workers, I descended the stairs. I had to pick my way through the gaggle of girls who had adjourned to the lower steps. I went over to the hideous presence behind the till.
‘Got LE25 change?’
‘No!’ I snapped, wishing I could have inserted a speech on the lines of “If I were your manager I would sack the lot of you!” None of them would merit a salary. Commission on sales would be the way to sort genuine salespeople from the slackers. An enjoyable shopping experience begins with a greeting and a desire to please, simply because the more you buy, the more the assistant earns. For the owner of the business, it’s a win-win situation: no wage bill.
Going back to Saturn making a meal of his offspring, I wonder if he paid a tip for the privilege.