If there is one memory the vast majority of us can share, it is our days of waiting tables. It is almost a rite of passage to the real and working world. Countless servings of fast and furious food with blood, sweat, and tears for drinks. “Hi there, what can I get you today? How about some beverages to start? Welcome to the service and catering industry. Job description: back and forth from the kitchen nonstop for hours at a time; balancing beverages; juggling plates; table babysitting; changing orders for changing minds; and dealing with the drunk, disorderly or downright dissatisfied customer. But there is a silver lining to the often heavy workload and this one comes in the form of those silver and gold coins left over from the bill and waiting for you to line your pockets with before moving onto the next table.
Tipping is predominantly a North American custom that as fully fed customers we leave for our unfailingly friendly, perpetually smiley wait-staff that just seem to love serving us. It’s an admirable gesture, to tip, since we do it to compensate for the fact that servers do not earn nearly enough for the work they do. However, perhaps this tipping culture becomes a tipping point that indirectly legitimises a carrot and stick-esque type of labour, another form of economic exploitation, and low wages.
The carrot and stick
My brother told me a story about when he was working as a waiter. One day when he came to tidy a table and collect his tip, he found a ten dollar note floating in an upside down glass full of water. When he looked up from his disbelief, he saw the customers laughing from the window. Luckily, my brother worked out fairly quickly how to extract the money without spilling water everywhere and the pranksters left disappointed. While this is hopefully not a typical situation; what it is indicative of is the undignified psychology of tipping. You are only worthy of a tip if your customer deems you worthy, or in other words; you are only worthy of a living wage if your customer is kind enough to give you one. This usually requires being forever enthusiastic, forever vigilant, and unfortunately for our waitresses forever easy on the eye (whether on the day or in your years).
From my experience as a waitress, I have felt that I will only get a tip if I put on makeup and display an attitude of ‘there is nothing I would rather be doing right now than serving you your food and drink’. I do not deny that there is such a thing as service with a smile but a lack of this should not completely undermine our waged labour… You’re still at work, you’re still working hard, and you still deserve a living wage. Then there’s the disappointment when you’ve worked really hard, been super cheerful, and you still get nothing. Does this mean you deserved it any less and where does that leave our hopeful server?
But even considering that tipping may actually have become something of a reflex for many people regardless of the mood of their server; my point still stands that it should not be the customer that dangles, dictates, or decides the wage of our waiting staff.
A tip off about where your tips really go
On a more personal note, I have always been lucky enough to always receive my tips more or less fairly. However, there are stories of managers raiding the front-of-house tip-jar at the end of the night. Also, what many restaurants do now is charge an already included and thus mandatory 10-15% service charge, which, in the spirit of this essay would not be such a bad thing if it indeed contributed to a rise in wages. However, I have always wondered where this service charge really goes. Not to mention that nowadays you can even tip electronically too. So what happens? Do servers get this amount added onto their wage? Or does this extra money go straight to the business, effectively profiting the owner and/or managing staff and depriving the lower echelons of the workforce? Perhaps these questions (often assumed or unanswered) are symptomatic of the fact that businesses tend to lack both transparency and accountability.
But let us even say for the benefit of the doubt that our paper or plastic does go to our servers or maybe into a pooling of tips that are periodically shared amongst all the servers, aren’t we as the customers still simply footing the bill for lousy pay? Prime example: the food banks for Walmart workers who aren’t paid enough to be able to eat properly. As the customer would you prefer that staff depend on your generosity for the quantity or quality of their daily subsistence or would you rather their boss pays fairly in the first place? We must be aware that tips and gratuities run the risk of being just about as beneficial to our servers as trickle-down economics are to the working class.
A living wage for the tipping wage
In the wake of a global economic recession, we have witnessed a transformation of the capitalist labour market in terms of persisting unemployment, diminished job security, and falling wages. Job shortages mean a huge surplus of workers which effectively erodes our bargaining or labour power as workers. This has lead to zero-hour contracts, a lack of employee benefits, a clamp down on strike action, and once again shrinking paycheques. However, as the pendulum swings, there is a slowly but surely growing movement in which some establishments are axing the ‘tipping wage’ for a living wage in the name of social change. What does this mean? Well, it means abolishing the tipping system, in some instances raising prices by a small percentage, and then paying front- and back-of-house staff 2-3 times more than the minimal wage. This is not to say that customers are strictly not allowed to tip any longer but at the very least they are made well aware of the fact that their servers are well-paid meaning that customers are not responsible and no longer required to bridge the wage gap. As well as a higher but more importantly steadier income; employees can enjoy non-monetary benefits such as a health plan, dental plan, and even a pension plan. What is noteworthy here is not only the tangible but also the intangible which manifests in increased feelings of security, not only in their jobs but in their quality of life. Staff experience less fluctuating pay, more investment in their labour and wellbeing, and more dignified delivery of service. This business model offers a more democratic alternative to what could be described as a catering culture which leaves our serving staff dependent on the loose change left on the table for the bus ride home.
An alternative to tipping
So what can we do to encourage this shift? Well the majority of us pay electronically which produces one receipt for the cardholder and one for the ‘merchant’. So, in the spirit of consumer activism, you could simply ask to write a note at the bottom of the merchant receipt acknowledging that you would like to see a living wage replace the tipping wage for their staff. Herein lies the nuance of consumer activism. It’s no good stopping shopping at a particular place because of their unethical practices and then neglecting to tell them about it. We should always follow up with a letter to head office or personnel stating our feelings, our preferences, and our decision to spend elsewhere. Writing a letter or writing on the merchant receipt informs the boss (while doing the bookkeeping and accounting) that you as the customer expect better.
To conclude… as customers and workers we should not operate on a face value basis in order to receive a fair labour-income. What tipping really becomes is donating; yes, much in the same way as donating to a charitable cause since poor wages leads to poverty. Like charity, tipping becomes a black hole of monetary aid which does very little to solve the socioeconomic issues of an unequal and top-down distribution of power between customer and server and boss and worker. It masks the real structural issues at play which is that profit is privatised (for only the owning and managerial class) and is not trickled down to the young waiter saving up for his gap year or the waitress paying her way through school. Yes, in the short-term we may feel better about tucking that ten dollar tip under the tomato ketchup but in the long term, we do nothing to demand higher and more dignified wages for working class labourers while the fat cats get off scot free.
Vanessa recently graduated with a joint honours Bachelors degree in Spanish and International Relations. Her passion is human rights and international development which she advocates through: free education; freedom of movement; environmental safeguarding; equal redistribution of wealth, property, and power; and finally the abolishment of conflict of interest. She plans to dedicate her life to these causes and feels that AMP is a great platform for her vision of our ‘global tomorrow’. Knowledge is power and Organisation is paramount when we are talking about sustainable social change and, for Vanessa, AMP is already a part of that process. In her own words “A better world is absolutely possible so lets spread the good news and get to work.”