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This article was first published in the second-quarter 2012 edition of Personal Finance magazine
Tipping is not always a straightforward matter. We have a convention about tipping in restaurants, and in many cases it serves us well (no extra charge here for puns).
But those tried and trusted percentages of 10 or 15 percent of the bill do not always apply in an economy characterised by informal employment, temporary work and increasingly varied service sector jobs.
The Collins dictionary definition of tipping as “payment for services in excess of the standard charge” does not paint the entire picture when tips essentially function as a supplement to low hourly wages (such as petrol attendants) and when they are the only form of remuneration for a job done (as is almost always the case for car guards).
This can generate some anxiety. On one hand, we may feel as if there are demands on our pockets from all sides, and, on the other hand, we are motivated by decency, generosity or the fear of being seen as a total idiot. The discretion about whether to tip, and how much, is obviously always yours. But we are social animals – not only homo economicus but also homo psychologus – and the decisions may not be clear-cut.
I find a dose of hard data helps to relieve anxiety in almost any situation. So here’s my first foray into the fine print of the social contract that is tipping. In this column, I take a look at car guards and what research on the topic shows about our motivations for tipping them. In a future edition of Fine Print, I would like to look at situations where you are, in effect, topping up low wages, as well as saying thank you to petrol attendants, pizza delivery guys, shampooists and the like.
The first issue raised by many is whether car guards perform a service at all. To an extent, the topic splits middle South Africa very much like the question of whether Graeme Smith is worth his place in the Proteas. The arguments go into the sort of territory where mere data cannot hold sway, but here goes.
“Shopping mall managers have acknowledged that car-related crime in their parking lots declined with the arrival of car guards. That the service can be real, even at a smaller local level, is demonstrated by those restaurateurs who now post parking-lot guards to ensure the safety of patrons and their vehicles,” Hayley McEwen and Anthony Leiman write in “The Car Guards of Cape Town: A Public Good Analysis”.
The finding was based on case studies carried out in 2006 and published by the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit of the University of Cape Town (UCT) in October 2008.
McEwen and Leiman report that guards have confronted potential robbers, taken a role in preventing car theft fraud and given evidence in court.
“A secondary function of car guards is to keep the more intimidating drunks and homeless from harassing motorists as they did more commonly in the past. This aspect alone indicates that, whether they value it or not, drivers do receive a positive service.”
No research is needed to hear the anecdotes about the guards who walk you to your car late at night, provide an umbrella during unexpected downpours, look after surfers’ car keys and money, and – according to some patrons – call you out of restaurants and nightclubs if the police are ticketing or removing illegally parked vehicles.
A study entitled “Why Tip?” confirms that guards are seen as providing a service.
There was a significant positive relationship between what was perceived as good service and both the decision to tip and the size of the tip, “supporting the idea that consumers in South Africa tip car guards in order to reward them for services they render”, Stephen G Saunders and Michael Lynn wrote in “Why Tip? An Empirical Test of Motivations for Tipping Car Guards”, which was published in the Journal of Economic Psychology.
Despite the value that car guards add, McEwen and Leiman found that generally “car guarding does not provide enough income for any expenditure beyond subsistence”.
They did not try to put a figure to the income, but an earlier study did. PF Blaauw and LJ Bothma presented a paper based on their research on car guards in Bloemfontein to the Economic Society of South Africa’s conference in 2003.
Blaauw and Bothma managed to come up with average hourly wages for formal and informal guards in 2001 based on 149 interviews. The actual figures (R5.70 and R3.70 an hour respectively) are so out-dated as to be fairly meaningless more than a decade later, but the researchers provided a comparison that is helpful: domestic workers earned nine percent more an hour than formal guards and 67 percent more than informal guards in Bloemfontein.
That guards earned so much less than generally lowly paid domestic workers is instructive.
To get an idea of current income (albeit in a minuscule part of the Western Cape), I asked for help from a friend, let’s call him Mr W, who was a car guard and has now moved on to formal employment. Mr W surveyed his erstwhile colleagues at three different spots on the False Bay coast in Cape Town.
He paints a picture of wildly varying earnings within a small leisure-cum-residential area.
In Position 1, the guard says he earns about R110 on a good day and as little as R30 on a quiet day. A nearby restaurant owner, if requested, helps him out with a donation on slow days. In Positions 2 and 3, the guards are paid a monthly retainer by a large and popular restaurant. Daily earnings are R120 to R150, and R300 to R500, respectively.
Mr W says his own earnings averaged R110 a day from his small, quiet spot before he moved on to formal employment. He was not paid a retainer by the shop in whose parking area he operated from.
In an unregulated sector such as car guarding, the size, location and level of activity in a guard’s parking lot or street determines the difference between scratching out a living and making a decent life for himself. No wonder lucrative spots become legacy items, to be passed from one to another in close networks of family and friends.
The False Bay guards reported a wide variance in the size of the tips received (between R1 and R20) and, of course, there are some patrons who tip and others who “come and park for four or five hours without paying a single cent”.
Saunders and Lynn found that the differences in tipping behaviour do not correlate with income, gender, age or race.
They also found that drivers are less likely to tip when it is raining, and that they tipped less at shopping centres than at other locations, but they tipped more on weekends than on weekdays.
Saunders and Lynn have some interesting things to say about what motivates people to tip. The “attitude toward helping other people was unrelated to [the decision to] tip but was significantly positively related to tip size. These findings suggest that altruistic motives underlie consumers’ decisions about how much to tip but not their decisions about whether or not to tip in the first place,” they write.
They also found that there is a significantly positive relation between social norms and the decision to tip but not to the size of the tip. The researchers found that when a person is motivated by social norms, the presence of others tends to increase the size of the tip, whereas if the socially motivated person is alone, the size of the tip will decrease.
McEwen and Leiman found their sample worked for an average of nine hours a day, with the range between five and 14.
There was very little job satisfaction among the interviewees. “Random interviews over the past year, and the case studies included in this paper, have indicated that car guarding is rarely an occupation of long-term choice,” they wrote. “It is more typically a short-term survival strategy or means of augmenting household income.”
This is unsurprising given the backgrounds of the car guards. Jesse Bernstein, in a paper “Car Watch: Clocking Informal Parking Attendants in Cape Town”, found that 41.7 percent of the sample had completed some or all of a tertiary education. (“Car Watch” was written for the Centre for Social Science Research at UCT and published in 2003.)
Of the 20 guards (eight South Africans and 12 from elsewhere in Africa) in the McEwen and Leiman research, five were guarding part-time as a supplement for other activities: one was a junior pastor and one was a UCT student, while three had other jobs in addition to guarding.
All had been employed before except one, who was a school-leaver with no work experience. Many had worked in careers that would have made them middle class if they were able to pursue those professions in South Africa. Among them were two teachers, a physiotherapist and a journalist.
Car guarding is without doubt a hard way to make a living. But the worst is not the low income or being exposed to the elements, McEwen and Leiman say.
“When asked about the worst aspect of car guarding, the overwhelming response was the treatment they receive from people.”