Tang Li: Service charge should benefit staff

Having worked as a part-time waiter in a restaurant for the past two years, the letter “In a self-service world, should service charges stay?” (March 3) caught my attention.

The writer has raised an issue which affects every restaurant patron in Singapore — that of the service charge, which is levied on patrons regardless of the level of service provided. The writer is correct to state that there should be no reason a consumer should be charged for service which is either poor or non-existent.

There is, however, another side to the story — namely the fact that there is little, if any, reward for service staff who provide decent service.

Waiters work long and physically demanding hours. They are obliged to attend to the whims and fancies of customers, no matter how unreasonable they may seem. Wages are notoriously low, even in the West.

When one looks at these facts, the question is whether there is any incentive for waiters to go that extra mile to deliver extraordinary service. One can argue that the waiter gets a salary from the restaurant and should do the job or quit. Unfortunately, this is pretty much the situation — waiters do only enough to keep their jobs and that is about it.

In Western countries, there is motivation for waiters to be good at what they do — they get tipped for it. Wages are low and often barely enough to make ends meet, but if a waiter delivers decent service, he or she is able to make a respectable living on tips.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in Singapore. Like in the West, wages for waiters are low (I have never met a waiter who earned more than S$2,000 a month). Customers usually do not tip because a service charge is included.

There are also cases where the restaurant owner keeps the tips and uses them to buy supplies.

Is there any motivation for waiters in Singapore to give good service other than the fact that it is their job to do so? Like the writer, I think there should be a way in which customers get a choice in the level of service they want and are willing to pay for.

I also think the service charge, or at least a portion of it, should go back to the service staff. They are the ones who provide the service and they need the incentive to provide good service. Not all of it needs to be in the form of cash — it could be in the form of training.

Unfortunately, this looks like something the Government will need to enforce. However, ensuring that the service charge goes to staff in the form of cash and training will benefit everyone.

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