The Tip Creep - Why India Should Say No to Tipping Culture

4 minute read

No Tips Please ⛔️

Triumph of Labour, Chennai ☭

Why all of us at Kannukutty Organic try to say No to Tipping Culture

At our organic farm in Tamil Nadu, we pride ourselves on fair labor practices and equitable working conditions for our entire staff family. So when we see new economic trends threatening wage stability - like imported tipping culture - spreading into nearly every service industry, we feel compelled to speak up.

Just recently, our LPG cylinder delivery person insisted for a tip after providing routine service. Even the watchman at our local restaurants hints for extra change in addition to his wages. We’ve noticed train cleaners, electricity board workers, and municipal sanitation workers casually requesting tips from patrons after finishing their work. It seems to have become an entitlement.

Additionally, food delivery apps like Zomato and Swiggy aggressively nudge customers to tip delivery partners, beyond the existing delivery fees and service charges. We worry apps are trying to normalize tipping so they can eventually change their business model - leaving delivery staff to rely on tips rather than fair compensation from the companies.

When we opened our organic farm doors to host guests seeking an authentic farm experience, we didn’t want to adopt unsupported western practices. Paying our staff a fair, standardized wage reflecting experience, effort and living costs was the norm here.

But before voluntary tipping becomes the expectation across every service industry nationwide, we think India should firmly reject this cultural import altogether. Because organic, equitable working conditions matter just as much as organic crop growing methods to us. And because everyone who work in the farm including the members who plough, sow the seed, irrigate, de-weed, harvest, market all contribute equally to the farm. (Not just the staff, but our cattles and fowls contribute too!)

Origins of Tipping culture in the west

The practice of tipping service staff in America has disturbing roots going back to the Civil War period. When slavery was abolished, many black Americans were able to find employment opportunities only in hospitality roles - like servers, railroad porters, barbers etc.

However, their wages were purposefully kept extremely low as a way to continue racial inequality and exploitation. For example, porters only made about $15-25 dollars a month when white workers earned almost 6 times that amount!

To justify the terrible pay, wealthy white patrons were encouraged to provide monetary “tips” to black workers out of benevolent patronization or pity. Over time, the racial tipping became an informal rule.

So after the Civil War, tipping was popularized by American businessmen to CONTINUE taking advantage of black laborers in the absence of slavery. They established legal exceptions allowing the service industry to pay minorities meager wages on the assumption customers would pay the rest in tips.

This racist system essentially enabled employers to withhold fair pay from black workers even after they were freed, just like under slavery. Instead of standard wages, now black livelihoods depended on the whims and generosities of white tippers to bridge their income gap.

So while tipping culture today does not overtly carry the same racial motives, the practice has its roots in perpetuating systemic inequality in American history post-abolition. The modern tipping custom continues an legacy of paying service staff unfair, variable wages - though now widened beyond just race.

How Tipping Culture Hurts Workers

Despite this dark history, tipping has somehow became the standard practice in the US. There the restaurants can legally pay their workers as little as $2.13 an hour and force them to earn the rest from tips! No wonder waiters in New York beg for tips - they need it to survive in an expensive city.

For India, we’ve never needed tipping to fill income gaps in the past. Back then, we Indians very rarely let go of their self respect and asked for tips/handouts. But with rising globalization, tipping is now becoming common even when good service is simply the norm, not exemplary. This will slowly create the same issues plaguing the American tip economy.

Staff income will fluctuate wildly based on customer whims rather than professional standards. Workers will get favored over others due to race, age or beauty biases. Customers will also feel entitled to demand inappropriate behavior or service levels from staff who rely on tips to feed their families or pay rent.

And who loses out the most? It is the same staff who ask for tips.

Why India Should Just Say No

As India continues to grow economically, our inequality is growing too. But the last thing we need is rising income inequality on steroids fueled by tip favoritism. We need policies that encourage fair, standardized wages for all workers - not just those who pester for tips.

We are not brushing off the responsibility on the poor workers who try to auguemnt their income by tips. We must make the government act to stem tip creep. Few steps may help:

  1. Setting legal minimum and living wages that provide stable incomes.

  2. Giving labor unions more ability to negotiate fair compensation and income distribution.

  3. Implementing service charges that establishments equally split amongst entire staff, front and back of house.

The culture of voluntary tipping brings more harm than good in the long run. While we appreciate the generosity of those wanting to tip for good service, India would do well to limit this practice before it gets embedded permanently into consumer behavior and staff pay structures.

All workers deserve fair pay guaranteed directly from employers first and foremost. As an Indian consumer, while you have the right to tip, let’s shift our focus on demanding businesses and regulatory bodies institute systems that make voluntary tipping unnecessary right from the start.

I am also embedding a scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. This unassuming scene is impeccable.