Millennium Post

A nonsensical compulsion

Obligatory service charge from customers robs them of their right to tip as per satisfaction and shields employers’ failure in duly paying their ‘lower staff’

A nonsensical compulsion

Service with a smile — it's not just the title of yet another Wodehouse masterpiece. Indians have been searching for this elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for years now. As a middle-class citizen counting the meager resources at my command or should I say the click of my Paytm tab, I have suffered the ignominy of being unserviced at various establishments where I thought the service was obligatory on the part of the service providers, considering the costs they had already retrieved from me.

But recent newspaper reports have convinced me that the predatory instincts of the Indian business fraternity, especially one which is making a nice buck out of our love for dining out on butter chicken and garlic naan, is well and alive after pretending to have all but died due to the Covid pandemic. The hostility, sorry, hospitality business is back at its best doing what it does best — making you pay for the ambience!

But the ambience excuse has become passe. The main contention now is that the service charge puts much needed extra money into the pockets of their lower staff. But is this not the job of the employer? Under paying the staff and then lamenting that the customer is responsible for making up the gap is sheer skullduggery and a miserly excuse that needs to be nipped in the bud by the customers. What next? Will they ask us to bring our own sauce and chutney to save for their staff's medical expenses and overtime as well? Given the volumes that most restaurants attract, especially during weekends, it is indeed preposterous that the owners are trying to project service charge as the life-saver for their staff. Have they even thought of paying reasonable wages and providing medical and other perks to their lower staff?

A charge is never voluntary. Once itemized in the bill, it's there, staring back at you with a "I dare you" look! Refuse it and you risk being bounced out only with a bruised ego if you are lucky; otherwise, a black eye is normally par for the course. Questioning a service charge on your bill is like announcing to the world that you are something that the cat has brought in after tipping over the garbage can and the staff make it a point to descend on your table with the bouncer and the chef waiting in the background with spatulas drawn. A spectacle is created, war is declared and one is made to feel like an under trial who has just been picked out for an encounter!

Tipping, as it is, doesn't come easy to Indians and most of us do mental math at the speed of light on seeing the bill. Five per cent or 10 per cent…will the waiter smirk? Or can I get away without drawing attention by putting the exact bill amount on the table and make a stealthy exit? We spend our hard-earned money whenever we dine out and any coercive charge over and above the actuals is likely to leave a very bitter taste in the mouth.

Many years back on my first overseas visit, I made the mistake of ordering bed tea in the room since my morning faculties lie dormant till some form of tea is poured down the food pipe. A groggy call resulted in a uniformed general like figure announcing room service with a pot of the life-giving elixir. After the first sip, somewhere from the corner of my eyes I noticed the general still standing with the bill book. A sleepy quizzical look failed to budge the old geezer. Then the penny or rather the dime dropped — he was waiting for his tip! The very thought revolted me — this stately looking gentleman probably owned a pretty house where his family cars were parked along with a fishing boat which he no doubt tugged along to the nearest fishing spots on weekends. And yet I was expected to part with a hard-earned dollar — denting my meagre daily allowance because like any other civilized guest I had to tip him for his service. Since then, I have been very selective about tipping and, apart from a close look at the bill items and the surrounding ambience, I also quickly do a 360-degree assessment of the waiter. The tip, if any, depends on the outcome of this exercise. The richer an eatery looks, the less I am inclined to pay extra!

If at all the service charge is to be included in the bill and the assertion of the management that it is for the lower staff is taken as true, then one may suggest the following — let the weekly collections of service charge be displayed on the walls of the eatery along with details of the equitable distribution of the same amongst the concerned staff. This will reassure the customers that their contributions are being received by the intended parties.

The stand of the pro-service charge brigade also throws out of the window the old adage that the customer is always right — the imposition of a service charge in the bill leaves one with little room to exercise one's right to reward or not reward the level of service received. Contesting a levied item on the bill could potentially lead to a war of words if not worse – one thing could lead to another and soon the antecedents of the well-roasted chicken could also be questioned by the customer. Most of us don't contest the service charge because like in the case of the chicken, we don't want our antecedents questioned publicly! Consider doing away with the service charge because service is not a finite entity — the restaurant cannot assume it has provided the service we deserve and put a fixed price to it. Let the customer reward the service or otherwise in the old-fashioned way — if satisfied, slip in a few extra notes in the bill pad and thank the waiter. If not, pay the exact bill amount and stop patronizing the place. There should be no guilt attached because you have already paid for the food. The customer cannot be expected to bankroll the extra money the staff needs just because the owner is under paying them.

Otherwise, if the impasse continues, we may have to put on more than a mask while dining out and also carry along a few bouncers of our own.

Views expressed are personal

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