PLUS PLUS (AND MINUS)

February 8, 2019 09:14 AM Gunjan Upadhyay


It has been a feature of the eating out/dining experience in Nepal for as long as I can remember – actually for as long as I can remember since I started paying the bills. It’s one half of every Nepali’s carefully considered ‘plus- plus’ calculation – something we remember to factor in either consciously or sub-consciously when browsing through different menus or poring through different offers for events, wedding receptions, and what have you. 

No points for guessing that it’s indeed the much beloved (only kidding) 10 percent service charge. I mean no one would willingly want to pay more when eating out but, despite the service charge not being a fully welcome addition to our bills, it’s hard to believe that there is ‘widespread dissatisfaction’ to it, as claimed by the Restaurant and Bar Association of Nepal (REBAN). This was the reason used as justification for their decision to do away with it entirely. As I write this, restaurant workers are on strike after REBAN decided to make the ten percent service charge fee optional in restaurant bills. 

Among other reasons, this decision was taken, ostensibly, to make dining out more affordable and the entire experience more ‘value for money’. But it would be naïve for paying customers to believe that a change is round the corner. Who’s to say that the restaurants and bars that scrap the service charge won’t simply up the prices on the menu to make up for lost earnings? After all, the management also takes home 23 percent of the service charge income according to the sharing agreement reached last year between different warring unions and associations. 

In any case, it’s not like ‘restaurant customers’ are the sort of tightly knit, vocal demographic that would compel REBAN to rock the boat and take this unusual step. One suspects it’s something else entirely, but of more importance in this entire narrative is the demographic at the receiving end of this decision – the restaurant workers. 

Even if for a moment if we, as paying customers, were to believe that eating out would be more affordable, it would be almost abhorrent for us to begrudge these workers a little extra surcharge for their services – especially if we knew how the entire ecosystem operated. The hotels and restaurants business on the whole is an industry where exploitation is rife at many different tiers, despite all the militant posturing and claims to advocacy of the various trade unions. There are many workers who, for various reasons, are not under the umbrella of the trade unions and earning well below the government mandated minimum wage of Rs 13,450. At the very least this service charge guaranteed them a few thousand a month extra (more in some cases) in terms of earnings and this is a significant booster for people living on less than minimum wage. 

For every star restaurant, there are countless others that exploit workers and fly under the radar in terms of willfully ignoring all kinds of labor regulations and this imposed service charge was an industry wide practice that ensured workers made wages they could live on. It would be another thing if we had an alternative to this blanket service charge too, but we don’t. For starters, it’s only now that the so called ‘dining out’ concept is taking root in urban areas and it’s not like we have any sort of a tipping culture that allows these workers to consistently make up for shortfalls in monthly wages.  

In fact, we all will try to get away with paying as less as we can. Witness our penchant for asking for discounts – even on restaurant bills and you get the gist. This imposed service charge saved us the blushes of making awkward decisions on whether to leave tips or not and assured workers of some sort of compensation for their services. Sure, cases can be made for instances where this ‘guaranteed tip’ culture has led to a drop in standards or indifferent service but, by and large, it has helped an oft exploited demographic meet ends.

We, as a population, are guilty of not recognizing the dignity of labor and all too often it’s easy for us to look down on waiters and people who serve us as ‘only doing their jobs’ and not needing anything ‘special’ in the form of a service charge. But delve a little deeper and this so called ‘special’ charge that will not matter to about 90% of the paying demographic (despite what REBAN says) plays a significant part in the monthly income of many restaurant workers. 

And if you’re on the other side of the fence saying that service is terrible despite the service charge, think of how much worse it might end up being if we do away with it altogether. You would have restaurant workers barely making ends meet and quite possibly the kind of service to reflect that desperation. To put it in colloquial Nepali, scrapping one of the pluses might just turn out to be a huge minus all around. 

The writer loves traveling, writing, and good food when he is afforded an escape from the rat race. He can be contacted at gunjan.u@gmail.com


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