Baksheesh and social tipping points

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By Khaled Diab

Egypt’s ‘baksheesh’ culture helps poor people get by and maintains relative social peace, but it encourages subservience.

21 January 2011

One sure sign that I’ve arrived in Egypt is that my wallet and pockets suddenly get fatter as they pile on the Egyptian pounds to deal with the country’s largely cash-based economy. In addition, I always endeavour to carry plenty of lower denomination banknotes to facilitate the prodigious amount of tipping ahead.

With the relative uncommonness of tipping in northern Europe, I experience quite a culture shock for the first few days of any visit. In Belgium, tipping is only common at restaurants and occasionally at bars, though quite a few Belgians I know never tip.

In Egypt, leaving sweeteners at eateries is only the tip of the tipping iceberg. Alongside haggling, tipping is a pervasive feature of the Egyptian economy. Millions of Egyptians depend on these gratuities for their survival and exist in a kind of parallel ‘baksheesh economy‘, abandoned by government and employers alike. In fact, the cynic in me might quip that, with the grinding poverty, neglect, marginalisation and disempowerment that poor Egyptians endure, tips could be the only change, loose as it might be, that some are willing to believe in.

In a country with high unemployment and overflowing with surplus labour, well-off Egyptians tip everyone from deliverymen, unofficial parking supervisors and petrol pump attendants to the even less necessary toilet attendants who hand them a napkin to dry their hands and the bagger who packs their shopping at the checkout.

Expat Egyptians are often expected to go that extra mile, and dig deeper into their pockets and tip at a greater angle than locals. By the end of any visit to Egypt, I experience something akin to tipping fatigue.

My wife speaks fluent Arabic, is streetwise and can haggle better than a local, but the language of baksheesh is one she’s never warmed to nor cared to master. Despite years of experience and my awareness of the economic importance of tipping, I also dislike the practice which, I am well aware, I unwittingly connive in perpetuating.

When I pay baksheesh, I do so partly because it is a social norm but mostly out of a sense of guilt at the wide economic gulf generally separating me from the person I am tipping. And in a society where the LE 35 minimum monthly wage (less than £4) is irrelevant, where labour protection is a joke and where social safety nets are tattered and threadbare, baksheesh helps somewhat to redistribute wealth and, at its best, is an informal expression of social solidarity and cohesion.

But, as my wife rightly points out, baksheesh is neither the most efficient nor the fairest way of seeking greater socio-economic justice. For people like me who believe in equality and egalitarianism, part of the problem is that baksheesh reward subservience, punish dignity and encourage a master-servant sort of mentality between the well-off and the poor.

Though tips may take the edge off poverty and maintain social peace, looked at unflatteringly, they also serve to keep the poor in their place by constantly reminding them of how their economic survival is not down to their hard work but due to the patronage of their “betters”.

In anticipation of a tip, ingratiation and hypocrisy are often the order of the day, though I make a point of tipping less or not at all in such circumstances. Very proud workers might forgo tips which, for many menial service sector jobs, is tantamount to financial suicide, while others will swallow their pride at the altar of economic survival, which necessitates that the sensitive tipper must try his best to be subtle and considerate when tipping them.

Baksheesh also provide employers in the service sector with the opportunity to dump the responsibility for their workers on to the customers’ laps and, hence, act as a disincentive to work, except in circumstances where a tip is forthcoming.

The baksheesh culture makes it difficult to read the intentions of certain strangers and decide whether they’re doing you a favour out of the goodness of their heart or in anticipation of your papering their palm with banknotes. Misread the signals and you could end up unintentionally insulting a generous stranger or being insulted by a mean one. The same can also apply to poorer people you know personally.

Far more troubling is how the baksheesh culture has become endemic, over the past few decades, in the underpaid civil service and public sector, which, one could say, has effectively privatised the government and made it accessible only to those who can pay.

Though I too have been guilty of discreetly greasing some palms to expedite paperwork to which I’m entitled, the occasions on which I have done this have left me with a bitter aftertaste, a sense of self-loathing and a “never again” vow.

Usually, however, I obstinately refuse to pay which brings along its own set of frustrations in the form of stonewalling, bureaucratic origami and long and winding paper trails. A few years ago, my wife and I gave up, in anger and frustration, on registering our marriage in Egypt because it was transforming our holiday into a helly-day, and I’ve yet to pluck up the courage to try to register our son’s birth.

As a form of social solidarity, baksheesh will at best paper over the cracks but can never tip the balance on poverty. On the down side, tips provide poor incentives to work, create subservience and even promote petty corruption. And as inequalities widen, baksheesh will not be able to stave off the inevitable reckoning between the haves and have-nothings.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 6 January 2011. Read the full discussion here.

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Tips for survival

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By Osama Diab

For many Egyptians, tip-based and street jobs are their only means of  survival.

21 October 2009

For 12 hours a day, seven days a week, Mohamed Ahmed sits in the bathroom of a Giza shisha bar handing out napkins to patrons. The job pays the teenager about LE900 a month, all of which comes from tips. It’s just enough to support his mother and four siblings. “I don’t like what I do, but I can’t find a job with a salary that pays even half what I make here,” says Ahmed.

Ahmed wasn’t always a bathroom attendant; he used to work in a brokerage office running errands, fixing drinks and cleaning. The job came with perks, like weekends, but he couldn’t feed his family on the LE250 monthly salary.

So he became one of a growing number of Egyptians forsaking the formal sector for better-paying, tip-based jobs, such as bathroom attendants and parking helpers.

While there are no reliable figures on the subject, experts say the numbers appear to be going up. Many blame the exodus on what they call the woefully outdated wage laws that govern Egypt’s formal economy (companies that pay taxes and register their workers in one way or another). Unchanged since 1984, the country’s minimum wage is LE35 a month, a number that has been made irrelevant by inflation. In the government, where employees are paid according to their educational level, the minimum monthly salary for a university graduate is LE108.

Even though no one actually makes that little, the law does not obligate employers to offer a decent wage, say experts. The outdated law and high unemployment — and, therefore, a large supply of eager workers — have conspired to keep wages down.

Official unemployment figures hover around 10% and are on the rise due to the economic downturn. Some academics say that the real unemployment rate could be as high as 40%.

Ahmed el-Sayed el-Naggar, an economist at the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, thinks the wage system in Egypt is one of the worst in the world. “It forces people to take bribes and steal because it’s impossible to live off one’s income,” he says.

There has been a push over the last two years to have the minimum wage raised. In late 2007, President Hosni Mubarak ordered officials at the National Council of Wages to come up with a new minimum.

el-Naggar, a union consultant at the time, was a central player in that effort — he authored a proposal to raise the minimum wage to between LE600 and LE800. “Even that is very low,” says el-Naggar. “But [workers] could not hope to get all their rights at once.”

The drive unraveled less than a year later. Facing the possibility of nationwide strikes, Mubarak raised wages for government workers by 30%. The government financed the outlay by increasing the price of petrol, which in turn fed inflation across the board.

Public uproar prompted a spooked Finance Ministry to abandon the plan to raise the minimum wage — officials worried it could trigger runaway inflation, says el-Naggar. “The Ministry of Finance decided to fund the 30% increase in wages in the worst possible way,” he says.

On the road

The migration of workers from the formal to the informal sector can been seen all over Cairo’s streets. Alia el-Mahdi, a professor of economics at Cairo University and author of several papers on Egypt’s informal economy, estimates approximately 300,000 vendors try to make a living on the capital’s congested roads.

And then there are ubiquituous sayes, the self-appointed parking attendants who direct drivers into spots around Cairo. They usually operate where parking is tricky — in front of office buildings, restaurants, cinemas and clubs. They often demand between LE2 and LE5, depending on the value of the parking spot. Some even give out tickets to make themselves look official. And their numbers, say drivers, are on the rise.

“They are more distracting than helpful,” says Laila Ashraf, a computer science student. “I give them money because it’s common practice, not because I think they deserve it,” she adds.

Experts say the trend speaks to a much larger problem in the Egyptian economy: the gulf between the rich and the poor.

Egypt’s economic reform plan, which really kicked off in 1994 with the formation of a new cabinet, does not seem to have done much to help the millions of unskilled workers here.

Between 2006 and 2008, the country’s GDP grew at least 7% annually, and despite the recent global economic crisis, growth figures remain positive. But that wealth remained in the hands of Egypt’s wealthiest, failing to trickle down to most people. In fact, a landmark study recently revealed that 90% of the country’s people were left out of the boom. Most tellingly, according to the UN Human Development Report 2007/2008, 43.9% of Egypt’s population still lives below the income poverty line (an outdated figure that puts poverty at less than $2 a day). In 1991, the figures were around 20%.

“The growth was more in the financial economy than the real productive economy,” explains El-Naggar. “The other thing is that growth is not real unless accompanied by social policies that improve the distribution of wealth through a fair waging system, a fair taxation system, and a fair subsidy system.”

el-Naggar says the minimum government wage for a university graduate of LE108 is only enough to buy 2.5 kilograms of meat. In contrast, in 1979, a graduates’ minimum wage was LE28, which would buy 35 kilograms of meat at the time.

“So even if we have growth, the upper class is in total control of the newly obtained wealth,” says el-Naggar, who believes there is room to raise the minimum wage. He thinks the government could fund the increase by raising the tax rate for the country’s higher income brackets.

In Egypt, there are only three tax brackets, with the highest starting at LE40,000 a year (LE 3,333 a month). In other words, citizens making LE40,000 pay the same rate as those who make hundreds of millions. According to el-Naggar, the fewer tax brackets, the more unequal the system is. Imposing higher rates on society’s richest is a conventional way to redistribute wealth, he says.

People in the highest income tax bands in the United States, China, the Netherlands and France pay 35%, 45%, 52% and 48% of their incomes, respectively. Meanwhile, in Egypt Law no. 91 of 2005 reduced the highest income tax band to only 20% from 42% as part of the government’s tax reform plan.

Sawy Culturewheel’s latest campaign ‘La Faqr’ (No Poverty) asks people not to give money on the street, the idea being to redirect those funds to fight poverty in more effective ways. Mohamed el-Sawy, the founder of Sawy Culturewheel, includes street vendors in his formula. “I can’t say begging is bad but selling is okay, because then they will pretend to sell anything while what they do is actually begging.”

Advocates for the poor say it is time for Egypt to re-examine an increase to the minimum wage law and move away from band-aid solutions to poverty. “We keep complaining that there are hundreds of thousands of beggars, but we are the ones who created them,” says el-Sawy. “I am convinced that Egypt is a rich nation that would be capable of taking care of its poor people.”

This article first appeared in the October 2009 issue of Business Today. Republished here with the author’s permission. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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