To service charge or not service charge

It's confounded me since arriving and been an ongoing source of debate among friends: why do restaurants and bars in Abu Dhabi charge upwards of a 10% "service charge" on bills? Is it a gratuity? Do the staff ever see one fil of it? Do you tip on top of it? If so, how much, 15 to 20% as you would in other restaurants? (I've been out with cheap people who like to use it as an excuse not to leave any tip at all, something that has always irked me a little as a former long-time server)

Ask around and it seems that a lot of the staff in the bars, pubs and restaurants around Abu Dhabi do not get a share of this so-called service charge, not that they'd complain about it. Service staff in Abu Dhabi seem to me, while lovely, an intimidated and deferential lot, and I do not blame them. Labour laws here do not, after all, provide much backing should "issues" arise and not only does your management control your pay, but often your housing and always your right to residence, making it almost impossible to whinge when things are unfair. Of course, this applies to most of the population here, and if we don't like it, we can always go back home.

Then last week on WAM, the state news agency, the Ministry of the Economy came out and said the service charges were actually illegal under a law passed in 2006 that banned unfair price increases. Yesterday, they clarified the issue, saying the charges were permitted in places governed by various tourist authorities. That is, the expensive ones in hotels. (For those outside the UAE, hotel eateries are the only ones that serve alcohol. Any place else is dry as a bone)

So the way it works is that the fast food restaurants and ethnic joints and TGIFs cannot implement a charge, even though eating there reaps bills that are a fraction of what they would be at, say Prego in the Rotana, or Bordeaux in the Shangri-la?

The truth is, if I'm going to be charged more than 10% on a bill in a hotel, I'd sure like to know that the staff are getting extra pay – even though I am still going to tip them well, to make sure – rather than a five-star hotel being allowed to levy whatever they feel like on food and beverage to pump up margins.

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