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The Middle East @ Work

A Secret Union

Richard Core Mar 9, 2008

As I finish washing my face, I see out of the corner of my eye someone standing right by me. About one foot away from me. Or at least that’s what it feels like. As I turn around, a paper towel is right in front of my hands. I see the paper towel dispenser on the wall, and I learned to take care of myself pretty early in my life so I’d sort of rather pick up the paper towel myself. But this nice man is standing between me and the paper towel dispenser. And he’s got a paper towel right in front of my hands. There is no way to say no without feeling terribly rude, or mean, or a combination of rude, mean and un-understanding.

There is something to understand in this situation. …

As I take the paper towel the nice man ducks his head and moves a stack of bills in front of his forehead. You can tell he has done this movement thousands of times. I reach into my wallet and take out a pound. I give it to him. I exit the bathroom wondering if I should have given him more. This nice man works for a luxury hotel in Cairo. I have no clue what his salary is. I hope it is a decent one. But in Cairo it appears that many, many people rely on tips. No matter whether they work for a luxury hotel or they are hustling on the streets. Tips for a service you might not have asked for. A service you might not even want.

I go back to the cafe table at the lobby of the hotel where Ravi is finishing a sandwich. I start a calm rant about how inherently wrong the tipping system is. “The tipping system cannot end well. Even if a person makes a lot of money on tips. It is never a reliable income, you cannot plan your future based on tips, it makes you a servant forever, depending on the generosity of the random client that enters your bathroom that day. Who do you complain to when you don’t get paid? Who is the manager here? Where is the union, the HR department, the minimum wage? What’s even worse, companies are not stupid. Companies know that their employees are making money on tips. And that alone can be a justification to not raise salaries… just work for me, and you will have access to tips… tips from people who probably do have a salary, an HR department…”.

Cairo is a wonderful place. But Cairo is filled with people looking for a tip. A 2% tip, a 50% tip, a one hundred percent tip… there is only one rule… if you are visiting Cairo you have to sign a tacit agreement, to give tips. Unless you want to leave this place feeling like a miserable human being. There is no HR department, no. But there is a secret union, the one that makes a lot of people in Cairo ask for a tip in a way that makes you feel that this is not a choice… this is the price to pay to be able to see the place they live in. A place with history coming out of every corner.

I’ve always wondered about the impact of tourism in millenarian cultures. I’ve seen tourism change my native city in Spain. And I don’t like it. I liked Cairo… I just wish I could have been here before anyone could fly, before KFC, Starbucks, McDonalds, American Express, Boeing, Airbus and TGI Friday’s (yes, there is a TGI Friday’s on the Nile). Before anyone here knew who the presidential candidates for the U.S. Democratic party are. There must be a lot of authenticity left here. It is just hidden and locked up, the same way I would lock up the authenticity of my own city to protect it from anyone incapable of understanding it.

–Miguel Macias

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