Oh dear! Hong Kong’s taxi drivers are in the hot seat given the front page article in today's (Saturday 27 March) English language newspaper (SCMP). Would you believe that due to their wicked ways, the drivers are each pocketing on average an additional HK$171 a month (roughly US$22) or on a 24 day working month HK$7 a day, less than one US dollar. How? - by keeping the 50¢ in change (less than 3% of the flag fall price) by rounding up fares, in a city where it is not the general practice to even tip a cab driver.
Can you imagine the reaction of a New York or London cabbie if they were not tipped? But here, no tips for a job that is a tough one; long hours, and dangerous in some cases recently in Hong Kong. A city, incidentally where there is still a debate going on about the necessity of introducing a minimum wage – reluctantly suggested by the city’s biggest Chamber of Commerce as being set at HK$25 an hour. I digress.
All of which left me scratching my head at the apparent lack of news, if this dastardly crime is the best the paper can engineer as its headline. It also led me to consider, once again, the thorny issue of tipping anyway - how confusing it is for the unwary and how people handle it.
I have just been on holiday. Hard to believe, I know, but even us “retired” folk need a break now and again!! We went for a cruise up the west coast of Latin America - fantastic. The cruise ship we took was a small one - reputable, but where the price you pay covers absolutely everything including, specifically, tips. This means that the staff have no expectations but it does not stop you - for service above and beyond your usual expectations - from recognising individual excellence. But it also makes you realise how diverse are the practices in various countries. From the bill presented with no extras, through that presented with the addition of a "service charge" and nothing else required, to the expectation of a substantial tip on top of an already high service charge - depending on the country.
From practices in Japan where tipping is not expected, through Australia where I have found the small change is often the only expectation, to the full blown 15-20% add-on expected in New York.
For me, tipping should be a reward for service rendered. It should not be designed to keep wages artificially low, where tips are expected to make up the weekly pay packet to a living wage. Tipping should be selective, although I can understand that it is difficult to specifically reward a chef who has had a particularly excellent night in his kitchen. It should not in most cases be a "general" pool shared by all - irrespective of performance – where even the un-enthusiastic service provider receives a “cut”. I am also very cautious about adding the tip to the bill - because I know from conversations I have had on the subject that this does not always find its way to the intended recipient. I am much happier paying the bill, as presented, and tipping separately. At least I have some chance of ensuring it goes where I would like it to go, and indeed I often ask the question as to who gets it, before I hand it over.
But, at the end of the day, whatever my preferences, I usually succumb and fall in with local convention, although not always! I recall an incident in a Hong Kong restaurant some years ago where I paid a bill in cash for a meal that had been average and served by surly waiters. I waited for my change and eventually had to ask my waiter to bring it to me – to which he responded by saying he thought it was his tip. (At about 21% of the bill, his thinking was way out of line). I said the tipping decision was mine, and I would make it when I had received my change. You might guess the outcome.
Of course, there are plenty of web sites you can go to in advance of a trip to find out what the tipping practices are in the countries you are visiting, but sometimes you do not have the time to do so, leaving you uninformed and possibly embarrassed. If only there was a generally accepted global “norm”. This would involve all staff in all enterprises being paid fairly, and not being made to rely on hand outs. It would enable service receivers to consider whether extra payments were warranted, rather than the service provider hovering around waiting expectantly for something perhaps they did not deserve.
It would certainly take some of the pain and uncertainty out of knowing what to do in each country you visit but, sadly, we have gone past creating such a universal standard. The best I could think of was the creation of the definitive guide to tipping. You could even have called it “Tipping Points” – until the remarkable and very readable Mr Gladwell wrote a best seller with a too similar title - and it has nothing to do with gratuities!!