Thursday, January 28, 2021

Of gastropubs, waitrons and tipping

Next to dark, deserted side streets in less prestigious addresses, the entrance to a gastropub is another very dangerous place. Clad in military black, hawk-eyed armies of young people prowl the entrance area, waiting to ambush customers and steer them to a nearby table, where the slaughter takes place. The service is almost always booby-trapped with unfulfilled promises and naked greed.
Welcome to 21st century waitressing in Gaborone. Not very long ago the waiter/waitress was a hotel fixture. But with the advent of luxury malls came the gastropub, such that waitresses now work even in shopping malls. Gastropub waitressing has quite unique capitalist food-chain hierarchy and processes.

At the top of the chain are employers who are taking advantage of an either non-vigilant or totally blas├® labor regime that is effectively unresponsive to severe exploitation of mostly naive young people fresh out of secondary school. They can afford to do this because like manual labor from Zimbabwe, the pool of school-leavers desirous of getting into the gastropub gig is forever overflowing. It is unlikely that between themselves gastropub owners have struck a deal to toss staff between their establishments but effectively there is what might be characterized as an unofficial but active slave-labor exchange program.

Waitrons (a new unisex term for people who wait tables) are not paid a salary but a percentage commission (normally five percent) from their shift sales. The commission does not stretch far enough and the only reason the waitrons work is because they collect tips from customers. This they have turned into an extortion scam. By way of training these waitrons are stir-fried for a few hours, days or months and even when their service is atrocious they still expect to get a tip. If a customer doesn’t tip, the waitrons would act like s/he is invisible the next time s/he walks through the door. In that way, the tip has become a bribe.

Among waitrons, tipping has been so scientifically refined that the patronage is profiled in terms of race and gender. A female waitron says that black people (Batswana men especially) are big tippers. Race A, which has to remain anonymous for reasons of racial harmony, while believed to be generous, are actually incurable misers. Race B, she suggests, probably does not even know the meaning of tipping. Across the races, women reportedly do not tip as well as men.

The Gaborone Central constituency has the highest number of gastropubs in Gaborone – indeed in the whole country. Area MP Dumelang Saleshando says that his constituency office has received complaints from waiting staff about their conditions of service. The most common complaint by waitrons, the MP says, is that they don’t get a salary but commission-based remuneration.
“This method of payment is not in accordance with the law,” Saleshando says.
What is lawful, he adds, is to pay a minimum wage.

Saleshando says that commission-based remuneration is problematic in that generally Batswana do not have a culture of tipping. He recalls a personal experience in the United States when he was part of an exchange program group. A few days after their stay, hotel management notified them that staff was complaining about them not giving tips, something that he found to be quite preposterous. Unlike in other countries, the tip in Botswana is not worked out according to a formula (generally it is 10 percent of the bill) but could be made up of loose change which the giver would not even care to count. The MP also makes the point that patronage of gastropubs tends to be a month-end activity which necessarily means that when business is slow, there is a huge earning gap for waitrons.

Another personal experience of the MP’s illustrates how tipping can have the effect of adversely affecting the quality of customer service. He says that once when he pulled up at a filling station in his car to fill up, the attendants ignored him and other customers and made a beeline for an Asian customer. He got to learn later that this customer has a solid reputation as a good tipper.
Good tipping can spell big trouble for young female waitrons. Since its invention money has always been a commodity that is used to buy. For that reason, some good male tippers may want to rendezvous with these waitrons after work. Saleshando concurs with the view that reliance on tips has the potential of drawing some female waitrons into some form of prostitution.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper