Last week, the Centre made the service charge of 10 per cent at restaurants and bars optional. The service tax and VAT remain. Though a patron always had the right to question the service charge, it rarely happened. The unspoken understanding between the customers and the restaurants being that this is a small fee for the staff, for cooking for you and serving you.
This service charge wasn’t going into state coffers and was being collected by the restaurant, so that makes it so much more convenient for the government to scrap it. Indians outraged by demonetisation can rejoice that at least tipping now is completely discretionary. Should a customer be dissatisfied with a dining experience, he can express it by not supplementing the attendant’s terribly high salary and by completely disregarding his 15-hour workday.
In an ideal world, a waiter’s livelihood wouldn’t have to depend on the charity of a fickle, occasionally mean-spirited customer who can use the flimsy excuse of poor service to get out of tipping. Unfortunately, there are no mechanisms in place to ensure restaurants pay their staff a decent wage. That would reduce their reliance on those shameless boors, who couldn’t care less about being outed as cheapskates by a mere waiter.
Of course, no customer owes a server a tip, it’s just the done thing. It may not even be appropriate in every situation. I recently paid Rs 3,000 for a haircut and I didn’t think it necessary to leave a tip for the stylist who was sporting a Cartier watch. However, in hospitality, gratuities is a grand tradition, as old as hospitality itself. It’s an acknowledgement of somebody who has spent time and effort to make your evening special, and who we know belongs to a chaotic, unorganised workforce where anything can change anytime.
For people working in the service industry, in salons or as valet drivers, tips contribute substantially to an income. Removing an enforced service charge changes the dynamics of the equation between the client and service provider and from what I know of the Indian consumer is that if he can get away with spending less, he will. It’s not even being unscrupulous since it’s sanctioned by law. It’s worth mentioning that in New Delhi and Mumbai, the service charge even at the fanciest restaurants is never more than 10 per cent, while in top restaurants in New York and London it’s always between 15 to 20 per cent of the bill. If the tip is less, it’s not unusual for the staff to return it in protest, definitely a mortifying moment for any diner.
In India, where differences in incomes are staggering, a tip is a small token of generosity. People are motivated to leave something extra for different reasons, not just quality of service or social convention. It takes away some of the guilt of spending half the waiter’s salary on dinner. But till a majority of diners understand fairness and social graces, and that tipping feels good, the seven million Indians working in the service industry and counting on gratuities, need to be protected by law.