Australians love tipping. Footy tipping, race tipping…but service tipping, not so much.
It runs against our egalitarian grain – that a person engaged in an honest days work shouldn’t have to beg a complete stranger to earn a living.
There’s sound historical precedent for this. In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell relates arriving in Barcelona in 1936, which had just been captured by Communist and Anarchist forces, and finding that “tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy.”
Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Señor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’.
In light of today’s decision by the Fair Work Commission to cut penalty rates (weekend loadings) for workers in the retail and hospitality industry by as much as 50%, it might be time to re-think our aversion to tipping.
When I moved back to Australia as an 18 year old and started working in hospitality, I loved the fact that you knew at least a week in advance how much you would be paid. That was in stark contrast to my experience in America.
In the US, by the time I was 18 I’d worked most front of house hospitality positions: busboy, waiter, bar back. The hourly wage was – wait for it – $1.08 an hour. This wasn’t mandated in an award. It was at the discretion of the restaurant: the wage had been calculated as an estimate of the tax I would owe if I was tipped 15% on my tables, based on the estimated turnover of the restaurant.
If the restaurant got its sums right, after taxes I should earn nothing. Somewhere I have a cheque I received for 14 shifts over two weeks that netted me 33 cents.
Of course, the real pay was in tips. On a good Friday night, you could earn over $100, or $12 – 15 an hour. And yes, if you were great at your job, if your tables were full, and if your customers were great tippers, it’s a well-paid job.
But as a waiter, you only have control over one of those factors. For every Friday night you finished flush, there was a Sunday brunch staring at empty chairs and a slowly-yellowing buffet. And there were always tables you lavished with attention who stiffed you at the end of the night.
But it was still better than being back-of-house, earning minimum wage of $3.25. One of my co-workers, a dish washer, worked two minimum wage jobs and was homeless.
Now, I’m aware that some are concerned that we are paying too much for our deconstructed cappuccinos. That our wanton consumption of smashed avocado on toast is an impediment to ever owning a home.
Those people, I’d venture, never had to rely on penalty rates to support themselves through school, or save, or feed a family.
A worker shouldn’t have to rely on the kindness of strangers to earn a living. But for the next little while, at least until penalty rates can be restored by legislation under a Labor government, we should suspend our aversion to tipping.
I’d suggest 20% on Saturdays and 30% on Sundays.
Unless your penalty rates have been cut too. But in that case, you’re probably working.