Sitting in a little bistro in Bordeaux the bill came and automatically I began calculating how much a reasonable tip in Euros would be. The friends, who we were with, shook their heads and said ‘There is no tipping in France. Waiters here earn a living wage.’

It took some getting used to but I gradually learned to pay just what was on the bill unless one of the wait staff did something really extra. It did get me thinking ‘why do we tip?’. I should be clear here and now that I will not be arguing that servers should be paid less. On the contrary I think they should be paid more but just in a more equitable and less demeaning way.
Americans tip the most and they tip a wider variety of workers but Canadians are not far behind. 10 % used to be a reasonable tip, now 20% is the standard. It used to be just servers at restaurants or bartenders; taxi drivers or people who handled your luggage. Now we tip hairdressers, the letter carrier, and fast food and coffee places where it is essentially self-serve and/or owned by the person serving you.

The original reason that tips were given was to show gratitude for extra service, that is it was a gratuity. Tipping started with European aristocrats who brought the practice to the U.S. in the 1880’s. There was a strong reaction against tipping, which was seen as a bribe and so was decried as undemocratic, creating classes of both workers and customers. Between 1900-10 a number of States, including Washington, banned tipping. By the 1920’s this legislation had been repealed.

In the US when the first minimum wage legislation was brought in under Roosevelt workers who received tips were not included. Even in 1966 when they were finally included it was at only 50% of the actual minimum wage. There was not another increase until 1991 so for tipped wait staff in the ‘wealthiest country in the world’ in 2017 the federal minimum wage is $2.46. Supposedly if the tips don’t make up the wages to minimum wage the employer is to top them up.
In Canada the differential is not as draconian. In BC the difference is $1.25 and instead of ‘tipped’ workers the term is ‘liquor server’. I assume the legislators figure the consumption of alcohol loosens people’s wallets.

So if tipping goes toward increasing the pay of these workers why would anyone argue tipping is wrong and therefore should be stopped. There are countries where it is banned (Japan) and others where it is frowned upon (most Scandinavian nations) and there are movements in Canada and the US to convince people to stop tipping Trish , a young restaurant worker stated “Customers are under the illusion that they are giving an extra gratuity but for workers tips are in fact piece-wages paid for our quantity of labour expended through food service.”

The biggest single reason to oppose tipping is that it increases inequality. First off it allows employers to pay poverty wages. In a poll on tipping 71 % of Canadian respondents said that tipping allows employers to pay low wages.

Also within the restaurant itself tips are supposed to be distributed equitably to the cooking staff, busboy and dishwasher but often they are not. With most people now paying with plastic some restaurant owners are holding back some or all of the tip money. Some provinces have even moved to make this practice illegal.

Another major problem is it causes many women, who make up 70% of this workforce, to accept inappropriate behavior and just brush off this sexism as ‘just part of the job’. Trish testified” I felt a constant pressure to dress and act in ways I didn’t always feel comfortable with. This meant heels, make-up and close fitting outfits…as a woman I couldn’t get tips if I didn’t embody a certain appeal.” In fact almost 40% of complaints about sexual harassment under employment standards are filed by restaurant and bar workers.

Frankly I did not see a discernible difference between French and Canadian waiters. Some were cheerful, others merely efficient and some should find a new line of work. To me just bringing good food to my table in a timely manner is all I ask. I do see more Canadian waiters putting on a show. I don’t blame them. If my income was dependent on creating warm fuzzy feeling of bonhomie I probably would be right in there too. Unfortunately for the wait staff, studies have shown that why people tip and how much are so ephemeral that no one can quantify it. One study showed a waiter dressed in red received more in tips. Another showed that the same waiter in a brunette, redhead and blonde wig received the most tips in, surprise, the blond wig. Wait staff have little control of the quality of the food, whether tables are cleared promptly or if the owner waters his booze but all those things affect their tips.

So why do we still have tipping when so many other countries have done away with it and there are a number of groups fighting to change tips to a fair hourly wage or as a minimum have a set gratuity right on the bill?

Partly it is the lobbying of the restaurant owners who for the most part like the status quo. It also is ingrained in our tradition of dining out. People said it gives them some control. In a poll 46% of Canadians support the way things are while 40% want to move to no tipping.

It is not news to most people that poverty wages are rife in the retail food industry but the practice of tipping just papers over the plight of those workers. A person ability to pay their rent or their tuition should not depend on whether you are feeling particularly generous that moment or whether the place was short staffed that night or even if it was just a slow night. A stable and livable wage rate, as those proposed by the $15 minimum wage rate groups supported by unions such as the Service Employees International Union, would go a long way to allowing those workers some dignity.

Brian Charlton

Columnist, Tide Change