Are corona service charges at Spain’s bars and restaurants legal?

Are corona service charges at Spain's bars and restaurants legal?
Photos: AFP
Spaniards have noticed that the cost of eating and drinking out has gone up since the country’s economy was hit by the coronavirus crisis, in many cases in the form of a 'coronavirus service charge' added to the bill. Here’s what Spanish consumer watchdogs have to say about the legality of the matter.

With many of Spain’s 47 million inhabitants unable to work as a result of the country’s lockdown, the importance of keeping an eye on expenses has led lots of Spaniards to notice a hike in prices, starting with their grocery bills and then the cost of having food and drinks in bars and restaurants.

Spain’s National Statistics Institute confirmed early on that food prices in supermarkets had increased by around 4 percent in April compared to the same month the previous year, something the Spanish government has denied, putting it down instead to consumers just buying more food as they remained stuck indoors during the weeks of strict confinement.

According to Spain’s Agricultural Professionals Cooperative (COAG), the cost of fresh food products went up in particular: tangerines up an incredible 47 percent, cabbage 28 percent and meat 6.4 percent.

Then as the country emerged from lockdown in May and bars and restaurants gradually started serving customers, the public was once again quick to notice a ‘price supplement’ added to their bill by some establishments.

In some cases, it was just a matter of slight increases in prices overall, in others such as in the photo tweeted below, it’s been clearly stated it was a “Covid service charge”.

 

 

Spanish consumer watchdog Facua has since spoken out against the price supplements some restaurateurs are adding under the premise that they’re having to make up for the losses incurred during the lockdown as well as the limited capacity during de-escalation and the costs of extra safety measures.

Facua has referred to these extra charges as illegal, comparing them to charging for “cleaning the table or wearing a uniform”.

The consumer group added that whether the surcharge is mentioned to the customer beforehand or not, “it doesn’t have to be paid and it’s advisable to take a photo of the menu or the bill where the surcharge is stated so it can be presented as proof to the relevant consumer rights group”.

“Business owners can’t load off these types of charges on consumers without justification and they shouldn’t be taking advantage of the current situation so that consumers pay for their hygiene and cleaning costs, measures that should’ve been in place before the coronavirus,” Facua stated.

However, Spain’s other leading consumer watchdog OCU has said that these ‘Covid charges’ are “over-the-top but legal”, as long as the customer is informed in advance of their existence.

If they weren’t told in advance, the consumer has full right to reject the extra charge and report it to their closest consumer rights group, OCU clarified.

The group added that the surcharge should be based on what the extra hygiene products are actually costing the business owners and that the extra earnings from the ‘Covid supplement’ should be shared with those actually carrying out the cleaning duties.

So are these 'Covid charges' in Spain’s bars and restaurants legal?

In theory, according to Spain’s Royal Legislative Decree 1/2007, they aren’t.

The text, which deals with the Protection of Consumers and Users in article 89.4, speaks of “the imposition on the consumer and user of unsolicited complementary goods and services or accessories” as being abusive.

In practice, well, it’s really up to the consumer to decide if they want to pay the charge.

If you’re told before you’re served, you can accept it or simply choose to walk away. And if you aren’t you can either refuse to pay it or just cough up the extra €1 or €2 it's likely to be in most cases.

It’s worth noting as well that many people are more than happy to help their local bar or restaurant recover after an economically crippling period for Spain’s hospitality sector, in many ways the driving force behind the Spanish love of spending time outdoors with friends and family.

But it’s always nice to be told in advance about extra charges.  


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