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3 reasons why waiters in Spain do not smile

By on 14/11/2012 in Boxed Economics with 0 Comments


In all my trips around Europe and America everyone told me how Mediterranean people were lucky in terms of rich culinary culture and flavorful meals. However, many of those who agreed with the excellence of the food in many Spanish restaurants, also told me one harmful impression: the disappointment tourists get when visiting Spain regarding restaurant service.

Camarero profesionalWaiters have earned little respect from their counterparts across the ocean. Why is there  such a demotivation among these professionals in Spain? One may think that their salaries are lower than the ones from this very same sector in the rest of the developed countries. However, there is not such a big difference between a waiter’s salary in Spain and in USA. So, if there is no  difference between salaries, what’s the cause  of this difference in the quality of the service they provide?

To answer this complex question we will focus on the reasons that can be explained in economic terms. Although there may be  some working cultural differences that can also determine part of the problem, we, as economists, must find the reason in the structure of the salary.

Behind these different behaviors we find tightly related a critical difference between the structures of waiters’ salaries  between,  let’s say USA and Spain.

On one hand, the fact that a big chunk of the salary in the States are the tips being paid that generously all the happy costumers give away, may produce a strong incentive to behave more professionally and in accordance to the costumer’s needs.

On the other hand, waiters in Spain may perceive that as more customers they have, the more working they have to do without much extra retribution. This situation is due to the fact that tips system is poorly implemented and waiters intend to get paid by service instead of by performance of the restaurant.

Even though a situation like the American one not only benefits the costumer but also the employee and the restaurant overall, it is not seen with good eyes this kind of business relationships. There are many reasons why this system is not seen with good eyes in Spain and in some parts of Europe:

  • Less rights: the fact that a big proportion of the salary does not depend on the contract that both parts have agreed on but from the qualification (and greed) of the client may put the waiter in a less favorable situation.  However, the counter argument is clear here: nobody wants to mess up with whom brings the food you are going to eat. Therefore, the relationship between waiter and client may be respectful (with some exceptions) and harmonious. Regarding the relationship between employer and employee it may also be not too bad (or at least, less contradictory that the ones in Spain) since the incentives are well aligned: a happy costumer is more money not only for the boss but also for the waiters.
  • Higher risk: or higher volatility of the salary if you prefer to say so. This phenomenon is due to the fact that the salary is linked to the production of the restaurant which may have some activity fluctuations. One may think that this is a bad situation for the waiter because she is assuming part of the risk that he would not assume if working under the working conditions in Spain. Nonetheless, this is absolutely wrong. In Spain this risk is fully trespassed to the waiter since if there is over presence of clients the waiter will work hard with little extra retribution and if there are no costumers -or less than expected- he will be fired with little pity –and called again when need it-. This is especially true with young waiters without contracts. Moreover, this situation is very common in the country since any inspection can be passed positively with just saying that the waiters without contract are on a trial period.
  • Fewer taxes: this counter argument is being used by the public sector. It is obvious that undeclared tips do not contribute to the public budget and thus it is better charging directly on the bill the cost of the meal. Nevertheless, black money is common in this kind of business and choosing from one model to the other may only make a change in what the waiter and the final costumer perceive while the tax collection may end up being the same.

To conclude, we may want to keep on mind that sometimes the results derived by our actions are not what we  expected. It is only by studying and checking the effects of the policies –in this case labor regulations- that we implement, that we can find solutions to the problems facing us as a heterogeneous society.


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About the Author: Economista y aficionado controversista. Gran admirador de las tendencias que mueven el mundo aunque a veces se tenga que luchar contra ellas. También le gusta el mar. .


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