Navigating tipping culture around the world is a minefield for travelers. Angry waiters fume in the United States if you stiff them, and thoroughly embarrassed waitstaff rush after you in Japan to return your money if you dare to leave some cash on the table. Unhelpfully, restaurants in the United Kingdom have their own method to the madness: a tip is expected at finer dining establishments but isn't necessary at more casual places, where leaving a couple of pounds may suffice as a nice gesture.
But scandal has been brewing in the UK after recent investigations have found that when tips are left, the staff aren't always getting the gratuities. The controversy has worked its way up to the UK business secretary, Sajid Javid, who is now saying that a tip has to "go to the people you intended it to go to" and is proposing checks to prevent employers taking money from employees' tips.
There is currently no legal requirement in the UK that restaurants give tips to their employees, according to the BBC, which has been following the tipping story for the past year. Without the legal mandate to do so, some employers have been skimming off the top—or in egregious cases have been hoarding tips to add to the bottom line.
In one example, the UK pizza chain Pizza Express was charging an 8 percent fee on pooled tips, which it claimed was an admin fee that paid for the effort of tallying and dividing up tips among employees. The practice was also in place at UK chains Ask, Belgo, Bella Italia, Giraffe, Prezzo, and others.
A Conservative Member of Parliament, Andrew Percy, proposed legislation last year that would require restaurants to disclose how they handled tips. "It's completely ridiculous for these chains to take admin charges—it's all computerized anyway, they don't have to sit down at the end of the night with a ledger and work it out," Percy told the BBC.
Percy said he's been told of other restaurants where tips weren't distributed at all. The problem exists at restaurants that have added a service charge on the bill, too, with management keeping the full amount. The union group Unite has said it has also seen examples of restaurants counting tips as part of a waiter's pay, which is often at minimum wage.
"Too many people were finding that when they were leaving tips for hardworking people they weren't actually going to those people," Javid told the BBC.
The British government says it is working on proposals that will make it clearer to diners that tips are optional, as well as mandates that will prevent or limit employers deducting amounts from tips except those required by tax law. For now, though, that tip might not be destined for the nice waiter who brought you your food, nor is it guaranteed that the busser who cleaned up after you will see any of your well-intentioned gratuity. Despite the venerable tradition of paying people to serve food, in some parts of the world we still haven't found a proper way to do it.