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Tipping point: Unacceptable service charges

What links Rupert Murdoch, Willie Walsh and a French waiter?

The obvious answer is that they all want to be paid for bad service, but in fact, their businesses have all reached a certain tipping point.

Last week, it was announced that many UK restaurants will no longer add a service charge to their bills, because a change of law means they can no longer keep it, but must give it to their staff. They are also no longer allowed to use gratuities or tips to top employees’ wages up to the minimum level.

This has resulted in a bit of a debate about tipping.

Last year, I stayed at a hotel in Turkey. I travelled thousands of miles, hauled my luggage across London on the underground, through two airports and then onto a bus, which took us to the hotel. The minute I was in reception, someone in a uniform tried to wrestle it off me.

I refused the offer of help; I’d got it this far under my own steam and I wasn’t going to give it up to some Johnny Come Lately. He then showed me to my room and I ushered him out, before he had the opportunity to indicate a tip might be in order.

I hate tipping, particularly when someone has done nothing to deserve one.

Particularly when you have foreign currency, that you are unfamiliar with and particularly when you are perfectly capable of finding the light switch yourself. Which, apparently I wasn’t, and I had to call down for help. Which was kind of embarrassing.

Why should we pay for a service that we haven’t requested? Workmen painting the front of a house, without an agreement, would receive short-shrift, yet when you are on holiday, all sorts of things are done for you, that you don’t ask for.

People serve you food, drinks, bring fresh towels to your room, empty your rubbish and clean your toilet. Someone will drive you somewhere in a car, hailed for you by someone else, and it’s not just the fact that they expect a tip that is the problem; it’s the feeling of helplessness you experience as everything is done for you.

People you don’t know, smile beautifically at you, and it’s because they expect, at some point, a reward, a gift, a tip. I don’t see why we should tip, but these people may not earn much and rely on gratitude, so that makes the guilt worse; not only am I mean, I’m depriving children of food.

Perhaps it’s a British thing, but probably not; we practically invented the idea of the monarchy and servants and butlers, so we should be comfortable with the idea of being waited on.

People in the service industry need a living wage, whether in a hotel in Turkey, a restaurant in Paris, or a pub in London. That is why the UK law has changed, to make it illegal for a waiter’s tips to be used to top up his wage to the legal minimum level.

Each country has its own rules for when it is, and isn’t, appropriate or mandatory to tip for a service.

In the UK, we generally tip in a taxi or a restaurant, but never in a pub, because we have to queue at the bar, rather than have our drinks brought to us, as is done in continental Europe. In America, you have to queue at the bar, but are definitely expected to leave a tip, if you want to be served again.

It is a widely held belief that diners are not required to tip in French restaurants; but despite shoddy and haughty service, leaving a Parisian restaurant, without leaving a sizeable tip, is the best way to ensure being chased down Rue Montparnasse with a carving knife.

Tipping is demeaning; it forces an unwanted dynamic of power onto a relationship, which can be uncomfortable; I can’t imagine anything worse than having my shoes polished for me, but in the US this an everyday sight.

People should be paid a proper rate for doing their job and providing a service, and we could scrap the whole culture of tipping. One advantage of the system, however, is that it is left up to the customer what they should pay for service.

The recession, though, is giving companies the opportunity to revise the way they charge for this.

We are used to discount airlines charging extra money for food, luggage and even using the bathroom; but British Airlines, has just announced that it will now be charging extra for passengers who want to choose their seat in advance. Soon airlines will be weighing their passengers and charging accordingly.

Companies are trying to charge for services that were once bundled into an overall price.

Desperate banks are trying new ways to claw money from their customers. Halifax has just announced daily charges of £1 for personal accounts, that were traditionally free.

Murdoch’s media empire is not based on giving things away and he has just closed the London Paper, News International’s freesheet, and has said that all his online publications will start charging for content. Where King Canute leads, others always follow…

This weekend’s World Cup qualifying match, between England and the Ukraine, is the first international available only on the internet, for a £5 charge.

The Economist has just announced it is going to revert to charging for online content and a whole generation of internet users will have to get used to paying for things that were previously free.

Perhaps tipping isn’t so bad after all; it is a rare example of the consumer holding a degree of power. Combined with an acceptable system of barter, it could be the way forward.

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