The BBC reported this morning that the government is finally to close the loophole on tipping in the service industries. This is long overdue and good news for hard-working staff who have been literally short-changed by their employers. It has also happened fairly quickly following a recent campaign started by the Guardian then taken up by the Independent and the Mirror.
I did a stint cooking and waiting at a fairly well-known music and eating venue in north London when I was between journalism jobs in the late 1980s. There, cash tips were collected and put in a jar – at the end of the night, the tips would be divvied up equally between all the staff, including the cooks, but not including the venue’s owners. A very fair system that reflected all the hired staff’s contributions.
The law has changed since then or at least the tax office’s interpretation of it did, as HMRC decided tips were a taxable perk. And then sprang up various practices intended to avoid taxation but that paved the way for using tips to make up a wage to the legal minimum. One route was getting customers to add the tip to the credit card bill, with a promise the tip would go to the staff. Yet there was never any legal obligation for a restaurant to do this. And now we have the situation whereby many restaurants simply use the tips as part of the miminum wage, or worse, pocket them in their entirety. The daughter of a friend of mine was working at a local pub, for example, where all staff were ordered to hand over tips to be split once a week. Except when the time came, she’d routinely be handed a tenner, despite having personally collected and handed over twenty times that amount every week.Some of the practices highlighted by the media are even worse.
Me? These days when I eat out, I leave a cash tip on the table and tell the waitron it is for them and only them. I never pay an “optional” service charge on my plastic because I know full well it’ll end up on a balance sheet instead of the right person’s pocket. (One of my favourite local haunts has an annoying habit of automatically including the “tip” on the electronic bill while saying it is optional – it’s a hassle to get them to remove it before paying and if it’s optional, why don’t they just assume happy punters will leave cash? Yet the management believes their practice is somehow more transparent.)
In my view, tipping is an outmoded and patronising practice dating back centuries and reflecting a more class-divided society of yore. It should be abolished altogether and replaced with proper salary structures that reflect and reward hard-working catering staff. Good chefs generally command good pay. Yet why is it that when service is as much a part of the experience of eating out, table-waiting staff still can only expect less than £6 per hour for their efforts?
Until things change, the latest move is a step in the right direction at least.