Tipping culture in Canada

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If I wanted my meal to come with a side of guilt for disappointing someone, I could always join family for dinner. Lee Lim

Why are customers shamed for not tipping, but never owners for not paying fair wages?

Tipping is one of the biggest culture shocks I have experienced since moving to Canada. All of the countries I had lived in previously had no such thing as tipping. In fact, trying to tip someone in Hong Kong would be an insult. However, in Canadian culture tipping is one of those things that is encouraged. Over the years, I have grown to understand arguments from both ends of the spectrum.

On one hand, tipping can be seen as a service fee, a way to encourage someone for doing a great job. On the other hand, it is another way for employers to get away with paying their workers in pennies, thereby forcing their employees to rely on tips to make a living. Since the pandemic, I have seen tipping culture take a brand new face, one that I had never witnessed before. We’re promised things such as rising wages which are supposedly meant to make our lives easier. Reality paints a different, darker picture. With rising wages comes rising standards of living, inflation, and the cost of gas and produce skyrocketing. In the end, we are back to square one with most of us being unable to afford necessities.

Today, you can witness tipping buttons on places that did not even have tipping before, like your nearest Starbucks, Fresh&Sweet, etc. The idea of Starbucks forcing its baristas to rely on tipping when we are fully aware that it could afford to pay its employees well is absolutely insane. It’s as if we are living in an episode of Black Mirror.

Simon Pek, a professor at the University of Victoria Gustavson School of Business, believes that the default tipping suggestion is an important choice to consider. “If those numbers are higher, it makes us think that a higher tip is more appropriate.”

Many have wondered what would happen if restaurants and establishments got rid of tipping. During the summer of 2020, a restaurant in Toronto named Richmond Station got rid of tipping. Instead, it started by simply raising its prices in order to be able to pay their staff more. Richmond Station’s co-owner, Carl Heinrich, believes that Canada’s tipping culture is a “very inequitable way of paying staff.”

“Any time you edit somebody’s wage or pay, their livelihood, there’s a lot of communication necessary, […] because there was no blueprint for this new system, there was a lot of work. And frankly, two years later, it’s still work.” In Heinrich’s restaurant, pay varies depending on a worker’s performance, experience, or their current role.

“Dishwashers are making a living wage. Servers are making a living wage. But certainly our best servers are paid more than our least experienced servers. In the previous system, that wasn’t possible.”

I think it is absolutely brilliant that some employers are choosing to pay their workers more when they can. I find that this is normally the case at independent establishments, but at least it shows that there are some owners who see their employees as human beings and not machines who must bow down to them and remain subservient. I do not mind paying more for a meal if I know that the staff are actually being paid what they deserve by the owner. It is the large corporations that I mind, who refuse to pay their workers livable wages despite being more than capable.

According to Marc Mentzer, a business professor at the University of Saskatchewan, businesses that replace tipping with service fees tend to not succeed. I find this really interesting. Mentzer highlights that customers prefer the illusion of having power over the server and being able to control how much they can tip rather than a flat rate service fee.

“Everybody complains about tipping, but given the choice between a restaurant with tipping and a restaurant with a service charge, I’m not sure how customers would make that choice. I think customers might actually prefer the tipping approach if given the choice,” Mentzer told CBC. “In an ideal world, there would be no tipping. It’s a human rights catastrophe. But it’s just so deeply entrenched. I think we’re stuck with it.” Mentzer emphasized.

Furthermore, the amount you are expected to tip is getting out of hand, and I feel as though there is this subconscious judgement when it comes to tipping. There have been many times that I have tipped out of nothing but guilt. And I am a university student, so I’m not exactly loaded with cash.

Tip inflation is absolutely a phenomenon that is occurring these days. Tip suggestion seems to be increasing, as some places are asking you to tip up to 25 and even 30 per cent. A survey implemented by Restaurants Canada earlier this year concluded that 44 per cent of 1500 surveyed Canadians stated that their tips are much higher today in comparison to tipping pre-COVID-19.

Increasing pre-programmed tip percentage options “scare people into tipping a higher percentage than they might have ever considered before,” noted Mentzer.  I believe there is some truth to this, as I have experienced tipping burnout as a result from being required to tip at places that never had that requirement previously. It is a way for businesses to guilt trip the consumer into tipping for products and services that did not rely on tips before. It definitely showcases the multitude of ways that our economy is changing right before our own eyes.

I think tipping culture is one of those systems that is hard to dismantle. It requires businesses paying their staff livable wages. It requires that there must be no loopholes for businesses to get by doing the bare minimum. It requires the government to implement new legislation to combat tipping culture in a way that appeases employees who live off of tips and consumers who are tipping more than they used to prior to the pandemic.

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