Sun | Feb 18, 2018

Jaevion Nelson | Worker rights under siege

Published:Saturday | December 9, 2017 | 12:00 AM

I have a love-hate relationship with many entities in the service industry. Bars, hotels, and restaurants are among the places I enjoy patronising for leisure or work, but they are also the places that cause me a lot of grief because of the poor working conditions workers, those at the lower levels especially, are subjected to.

Far too many of these establishments are a blatant reminder of some of the things that people have to deal with daily underemployment, low wages and long working hours, poor working conditions, abuse, from demanding customers, job insecurity, etc.

The situation is even more distressing because those who are affected often do not have unions or the wherewithal to take action when they are abused. In some cases, efforts to stand up for themselves and seek redress might result in them being fired or, at the very least, a suspension without pay.

In October, I was at a hotel on the north coast having breakfast when a male worker came to ask if he could sit with me. I found it quite odd, but I reluctantly obliged him, though I wanted to be by myself. I was very shocked to learn that at this particular hotel, staff who decide to use the dining area are obligated to sit with guests.

Failure to do so, if caught, results in immediate suspension, according to the man.

I was left almost speechless.

It is already bad that only certain categories of staff are allowed to consume food prepared for guests and even fewer who are allowed to eat in the dining areas. Why then must one be subjected to my willingness to eat with a stranger who happens to work there so they can have a meal?

"Mek mi tell yuh supm, breddah. We inna modern times, but a still slavery," he said as he described how demoralising it was for him to walk around the dining room trying to find someone to sit with so he could eat. Guests often turn down his request, so by the time he gets to the third no, he feels embarrassed and loses his appetite.

His comment reminded me of a discussion my colleagues and I had with a waitress at dinner in September at another hotel. "A slavery, but weh mi fi do?" she asked as she shared about the long hours she works, the low pay, leaving work at midnight with no transportation provided by the company to get home, and having to purchase food, though there was so much being wasted every day there.

As I said last December, "The sectors/industries that successive governments have depended and prided themselves on [... are] responsible for such rampant abuse of the rights of their workers (See Abuse of Workers' Rights At The Workplace).

The secretary general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Taleb Rifai's reference to the all-inclusive hotels as "modern-day plantations" at the recently held Global Conference on Jobs and Inclusive Growth: Partnerships for Sustainable Development in Montego Bay, St James, was timely.

According to reports, Rifai said, "We cannot continue to promote modern-day plantations in our own countries called exclusive resorts. That is not the model we are looking for at all."

I agree with him wholeheartedly! Government must pursue a better model and take some time out of the not-so-busy parliamentary schedule to discuss the situation with worker rights in this country. We also have to demand that these entities do more for the communities where they are located and the people who work there.

Rifai's comments should have prodded a national conversation that we have been avoiding for far too long. It's time we face the uncomfortable truth.

According to Professor Verene Shepherd, some of the characteristics of the plantation are (taken verbatim from her Facebook):

- a total institution;

- mostly foreign owned (by individuals or corporations);

- owners have little attachment to the country of location;

- development confined to the immediate environs;

- inputs largely imported profits/outputs largely exported;

- no forward, backward or final demand linkages;

- large unskilled labour force, largely women in the domestic aspects;

- low or no wages;

- long hours of work for low-skilled workers;

- very low labour representation;

- profits do not trickle down and workers are not allowed to own shares;

- top management comes from expats.

Do you see any similarities here with your favourite hotel? Is it not time for us to rekindle with our passion for protecting worker rights and ensure their protection? Let's start the conversation.

- Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV, and human-rights advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com.