We have heard it time and time again: “Tourism is our business, let’s play our part”. And, for the most part, Bajans have done a “jolly good” job of ensuring that the visitors who come to this island in droves are well taken care of.
We have all embraced this national slogan that was plastered all across the media many years ago, but none has owned it quite like the industry officials. Long shifts, double shifts, split shifts, every shift possibly created in the sector has been embraced by the workers and, by extension, their households.
This is not to say that management is not dedicated, but there is a remarkable sense of commitment and purpose that comes with being on the ground working in the hospitality industry.
We never think of them when we speak of “essential workers” but they do fall in that category. And while some may argue that there is no “life or death” urgency in what they do, we beg to differ. Essentially, the caretaking of thousands of tourists who leave the comfort of their homes in search of a vacation in the tropics lies in the sector’s hands – a sector that is the life or death of our economy.
In bad weather, as we have had recently, tourism employees are still tasked with leaving their homes at what Bajans call “ungodly hours”, as early as 4 a.m., to report to work. They must be there in time for the guests to get their breakfast and to be available for other services.
Some workers live in St Philip and must trek to hotels on the West Coast, others live in the north of the island but have jobs on the South Coast, travelling as far as The Crane.
And if by chance one or two cannot make the other shifts throughout the day, those on the job must stay on. While overtime rates may then become applicable, that pay is not much to shout about given the onerous tasks.
The vast majority of these workers – chefs, housekeepers, waiters, waitresses, porters, butlers, receptionists, security guards, pool attendants and maintenance workers – are on their feet for several hours. They labour and toil to ensure that the industry we continually depend on the most prospers. Some benefit from service fees that many others do not get and many are not allowed to take tips.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers and their households were hit hard. Months and years passed without a steady income. Their NIS payments came to an end, yet they stayed the course.
It was disheartening to see hotel workers marching outside various establishments demanding what was rightfully and legally theirs. At that time, no worker in any other sector was faced with such indignity. No other group of workers had to march and protest for their earnings.
During one of the protests, former workers of Accra Beach Hotel, Savannah Beach Hotel, and the Barbados Hilton teamed up and demanded outstanding severance and other payments, hoping that the strength in numbers would work in their favour.
At the time, one protestor told Barbados TODAY: “…. Most people are finding it hard to get by, you know, just the basic stuff that you need to get along in life … that’s hard right now.
“Yes, a couple of people found jobs but the majority of the staff are still home not doing anything and bills are coming in, they have children to feed, and the rent has to be paid. We have married couples who worked at the same hotel and both of them are home with rent to pay and little children. It cannot be easy on those persons. Right now, this is very stressful. You just want what is honestly yours so that you could move on.”
Hoteliers were given a lifeline via the Barbados Employment & Sustainable Transformation (BEST) programme. The idea was for employers to use the money to sustain and enhance not only their physical plants but their human resources as well.
Only a small number of hotel workers benefited from this. Yet, as things began to ease, they were the first ones standing ready to press on to ensure that some semblance of the industry remained.
It is because of this and so much more that we feel the need to agree with Chairman of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) and the Cayman Islands’ Minister of Tourism and Transport Kenneth Bryan.
In a story carried in the Monday edition of the Barbados TODAY e-paper, Bryan urged Barbados and other Caribbean governments to adjust their tax structures to allow workers in the tourism sector to go home with more money in their pockets.
“There’s nothing better in this world to incentivise somebody than to give them more money. Some of the pay that our people are making in some Caribbean islands is just not sufficient, so maybe governments can strategise with the industry to be more dynamic with their tax structure so we can move money around so it doesn’t become too burdensome on the hotels. But we need to get the money back into the salaries, to the people,” he said.
Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.