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Spanish hotels want Cuban workers, says hotelier: But Riu says ‘not us’

Published:Friday | January 9, 2015 | 10:40 AM

Dimitris Kosvogiannis, general manager of Melia Jamaica Braco Village and former country manager for the Palladium Hotel Group, said his canvassing of Spanish-owned properties in Jamaica indicates that most are planning to hire Spanish-speaking Cuban workers, who may soon be able to travel more freely.

However, representatives of at least one chain, Riu, which operates five properties in Jamaica, says it has no such intention.

In mid-December, United States President Barack Obama announced a change in US foreign policy toward Cuba, to re-establish diplomatic relations after 50 years.

The agreement included a promise by the US to ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking, while Cuba will allow more Internet access and release 53 Cubans identified as political prisoners by the US.

Although the trade embargo remains in place, Obama called for an "honest and serious debate about lifting" the blockade, which will require an act of Congress.

Based on discussions with other Spanish hotels, said Kosvogiannis, "They can't wait for Cubans to travel so that they can hire them all."

He said the Mexicans were very interested as well.

However, he noted that Melia Braco, which is also Spanish-owned and due for opening in June, is not likely to go after Cuban hires.

"The Spanish hotels, based on their record, want their people in order to be able to communicate properly with head office which has limited English. As a matter of fact, they prefer to speak Spanish. So they love to hire Spanish-speaking people, who also speak English," said Kosvogiannis.

"The Cubans look like us, which is Caribbean. They don't stick out like the Mayans [Central Americans]. So Cuba will provide an incredible pool in the hospitality industry."

Frank Sondern, who is general manager for both the 861 room Hotel Riu Montego Bay and the 238-room Hotel Riu Palm Jamaica, said the Spanish chain has no such inclination for Cuban talent.

"I can only speak for Riu hotel and what we do is actually hire Jamaicans that speak Spanish or train them to speak Spanish. We do not look for Spanish speakers to be hired here just because they speak Spanish," said Sondern.

"We go first with the Jamaican option. For higher management, general management and so on, we have people who speak more than just Spanish and English, but in general, only about two per cent of foreigners are working here."

Riu has a Jamaican workforce of about 2,500, of which 98 per cent are Jamaicans. "This is how we want to keep it," said Sondern.

Other Riu properties are the 416 room Riu Tropical Bay and the 420 room ClubHotel Riu Negril - both in Negril - and the 856 room ClubHotel Riu Ocho Rios.

Local Spanish hotels include Palladium, Grand Bahia Principe, Iberostar and Secrets. Mexican-owned properties include the Hyatt Ziva and Moon Palace Jamaica Grande.

New entrant Melia is on the hunt for 200 workers for the 225 room property in Trelawny that it will operate under lease from the National Insurance Fund.

Said Kosvogiannis: "I am convinced that unless we act, in my mind, Jamaicans will see their jobs being taken by very service- oriented Spanish speakers. "My solution ... is to take the HEART institute to a next level."

State-run HEART Trust/NTA trains workers for the hospitality industry, as well as other sectors.

"Take it to the level where it trains not just the rank and file labour force, but it also trains for these expatriate positions," said Kosvogiannis, referring to management-level positions.

"We also need to look at our work permits as well. We issue work permits very freely and very open-endedly," he said.