Skip to main content

This is part two in a series exploring the construction of precarious restaurant work and the connection this has to women’s experiences of sexual harassment. See part one here.

The practice of tipping dates back to Sixteenth Century pubs and coffee houses in England. Customers entering an establishment would place coins into a brass urn that read, “To Insure Promptitude” (TIP). Tipping has since become an institutionalized practice in Canada, one that is even reflected in our labour laws.

In 2011, the BC government introduced the “liquor server minimum wage”: a lower minimum wage rate for liquor servers. As of September 15, 2015, when the regular minimum wage was raised to $10.45 per hour, the liquor servers wage was raised to just $9.20 per hour. Ontario and Quebec also have lower minimum wages for workers in the service industry earning tips. Unlike these provinces, however, BC law fails to regulate tips and tip pooling1. Ontario has recently passed the Protecting Employees’ Tips Act, a law intended to prevent employers from keeping a portion of tips for themselves. No similar protection exists for workers in BC.

The liquor server minimum wage is significant. It recognizes and legitimizes the norm of tipping and condones a wage-tip relation. This is problematic because customers are outside of the employer-employee relationship. With the practice of tipping, customers participate in an important role normally performed by an employer, paying workers for their labour, but are beyond labour law’s reach.

The wage-tip relation contributes to precarious work in the restaurant industry. Tipping makes restaurant work precarious because it is an unreliable source of income. Unlike an hourly wage, the amount a customer pays a server or a bartender for their labour is not worked out in advance. Actually, since tips are left at the customer’s discretion, there is no guarantee that a customer will tip at all (the exception is an automatic-service charge added to a bill, for instance, for a large party). In addition to the discretion of a customer, the amount a worker earns through tips can depend on a number of factors that are outside of their control, including: the weather, the day of the week or time of the day they work, or even the section they’re given to work in (e.g. if the tables are desirable and get a lot of customer traffic).

Through the practice of tipping, customers take on a role normally reserved for an employer, remunerating workers, but they are outside of the employment relationship. The law acknowledges tipping by allowing employers to pay liquor servers below minimum wage, constructing a precarious wage-tip relation. Importantly, the wage-tip relation disproportionately impacts women, as women in BCs full-service restaurant industry make up 81% of food and beverage servers.  Tipping has gendered implications.

The practice of customers tipping workers makes workers vulnerable to tolerating sexual harassment from customers or risking their tips if they do not—an institutionalized quid pro quo. The connection between tipping and women’s uncomfortable sexual experiences at work will be explored in the next article in this series.

1 Tip pooling is a practice whereby a portion of tips are redistributed to other workers, like cooks or hosts, and controversially, managers or owners)