While the Nepal tourism industry faces a crisis in the ongoing global pandemic, trade unions in Nepal active in the hotel sector succeeded in defending the jobs and livelihoods of hotel and tourism workers. The active unions, including the IUF-affiliated Nepal Independent Hotel Workers Union [NIHWU], negotiated an agreement with the Hotel Association of Nepal (HAN) to guarantee the job security of hotel workers.
The agreement, which covers a one year period from January 1 to December 31, 2021, guarantees that no hotel workers will be laid off.
“We secured jobs as our first priority. So even those not working at all will still keep their jobs,” said Surya Bahadur, President NIHWU. “When the lock-down is over and business returns to normal, hotel workers will not need to search for jobs with rising unemployment. They will return to work, which is their right.”
Under the agreement hotel workers will also be paid wages according to a schedule of days worked. Any worker working more than fifteen days in a month will receive the full monthly wage.
We know the feeling when we see a football match that’s rigged. Our team is playing with skill, talent and team work, following the rules and scoring brilliant goals. But the referee is handing out yellow and red cards to our team, and letting the other team cheat, foul and bluff their way to victory. Final whistle and we are left angry, frustrated and beaten. That’s how our members in TEAM felt this week when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Crown Company. In violation of the internationally recognized to freedom of association, the ruling upholds the right of Crown Resorts to terminate 22 workers for joining a union and speaking out about abusive working conditions and safety 10 years ago. For Crown Company the investment in the legal battle to silence workers on its resorts has paid off. But the cost for the Maldives is high, especially when the safe recovery of tourism needs the robust, confident voices of workers, not their fearful silence.
In the fragile recovery of tourism during an ongoing pandemic, international travellers fortunate enough to reach the Maldives expect to stay at safe hotels and resorts. Their safety depends not on protocols and policies but the experienced, skilled and committed staff who are able to keep them safe. The capacity of hotel and resort workers to do this depends on their own safety and security and their ability to speak out about safety concerns. This is underpinned by good industrial relations. Because the only way to speak out is collectively, without fear of reprisal. In other words, an unethical workplace where workers are treated badly and silenced through threats and intimidation easily translates into unsafe workplace and an unsafe resort.
These are the conditions Crown Company has created over the past 10 years. By diversifying into finance and private hospitals and cutting costs in its resorts, Crown Company has undermined the safety of workers and guests. The company has a record of unethical actions later justified as necessary for economic reasons.
In 2009 over 350 workers protested abusive working conditions at the Hilton Conrad Rangali Islands Resort, which was owned and managed by Crown Company. In response the company terminated 29 union members and leaders. After 22 union members challenged their unfair dismissal in the Employment Tribunal, the Tribunal ruled that the mass firings were unfair, and ordered management to reinstate the workers within 10 days with full back pay.
Instead of correcting this and following the sound judgement of the Employment Tribunal, Crown Company aggressively pursued the termination of union members. Appealing to the High Court, Crown Company, invested heavily in the legal fight to overturn the Employment Tribunal decision. This legal battle then continued over the next 10 years to the Supreme Court.
This investment in a legal battle to prevent reinstatement of the 22 unfairly dismissed union members was a significant political investment for Crown Company. Not only did it keep the Hilton Conrad resort free of a union – silencing workers who raised concerns about abusive working conditions. It also created a climate a fear in Crown’s other resorts including those operated jointly under Crown & Champa Resorts (CCR).
The message was clear: if you exercise your right to join a union and speak out about health and safety, an abusive management, and poverty wages, then you will be terminated, forcefully removed from the island and never be permitted to return. In a travesty of justice that casts doubt on the independence and integrity of the judicial system, the Supreme Court upheld Crown Company’s message on February 3, 2021.
Dismissed union members protesting off the coast of the island resort owned by Crown Company in October 2012.
This sets a very damaging precedent for the Maldives at a time when the government is making tremendous efforts in the recovery of tourism.
For this tourism recovery to be sustainable, the government must look beyond reopening to flights and maintaining COVID-19 testing and safety protocols. Rogue companies like Crown Company must be held accountable for its unethical behaviour. Workers at resorts fully or partly owned by Crown Company must be guaranteed the right to decent working conditions.
More importantly, workers must be guaranteed the right to speak out against substandard conditions, poor health and safety and other violations. If they continue to be silent, fearing dismissal – as the Supreme Court ruling seems to suggest they should – then no one can guarantee the safety of these resorts. The credibility and reputation of the whole Maldives tourism industry is at then put at risk.
And that’s the real cost of rigged matches.
In May 2020 Accor announced intensified hygiene and prevention measures to guarantee guests’ safety under its new “Allsafe” global brand. Hundreds of new safety and hygiene protocols were unilaterally introduced to meet the new standards of cleanliness. In the Asia-Pacific region workers in Accor properties found that the new protocols were developed without any consideration of working conditions, workload or workers’ safety. They experienced longer working hours on less pay; exposure to new, more toxic chemicals used as disinfectants in rooms and public areas; erratic shifts; and the reintroduction of the same unsafe work practices that existed before the pandemic.
This includes room quotas for housekeepers/room attendants. Room quotas have long been identified as a source of injury and illness caused by the pressure to clean rooms quickly to meet targets and avoid penalties and loss of pay. Now under the new cleanliness protocols, housekeepers must clean more intensively with more toxic chemicals and carry out a range of new tasks, but with the same room quotas. This further increases excessive workloads, injury and stress.
To many workers the new safety protocols seem to be designed to give the appearance of a safe hotel for guests, while failing to make it a safe workplace for workers. But the reality is that for any hotel to be safe, the health and safety of the workers serving, cooking, cleaning and taking care of guests needs to be protected and rights respected.
By shifting the burden and the risk of a safe reopening to workers, Accor hopes to keep the costs of the new cleanliness program down. This is taken to extremes in Indonesia, where Accor Indonesia allows hotel management to shift the costs of new health protocols onto workers. At the Novotel Surabaya, for example, workers were told that they must have a COVID-19 rapid test every two weeks to be allowed to work. The test costs IDR 150,000 (about USD 10) and workers must pay for it themselves – every two weeks. Accor pays nothing. Workers will now spend between 7% to 14% of their monthly wages just to be allowed to work.
The prospects of a safe opening are even less in those hotels that terminate experienced, trained workers to save costs during temporary closures. When hotels reopen, the entire workforce will be untrained, inexperienced and unable to maintain or guarantee safety protocols. This puts everyone at risk. This risk escalates exponentially when management also uses the crisis to violate workers’ rights by denying them the right to union representation.
At Accor‘s Sofitel Nusa Dua in Bali, management bypassed the union, refusing to allow workers union representation as they coerced them to stay home without pay. Management gave 589 workers two options – to stay home without pay or to continue to work with adjusted pay. Using the fear and anxiety of the COVID-19 crisis, management convinced the majority of workers to take the first option. For the workers who chose the second option, they were unfairly terminated less than a month later. This was essentially punishment for wanting to be paid.
At Accor‘s Fairmont Sanur in Bali, workers were asked in April to make a sacrifice to help the company in these difficult times. They agreed to a 70% wage cut, receiving only 30% of their wages, putting them well below the poverty line. Despite this sacrifice in wages, management still tried to force 68 workers to sign “voluntary” resignation letters at the end of July. All of them were members of the union. The workers refused and two days later received termination letters declaring them redundant. Although management claimed that the workers were redundant because of the economic situation, their real motives were exposed when they allowed workers to return to work on the condition that they quit the union.
So in an accelerating pandemic Accor Indonesia and the management at Fairmont launched yet another attack on trade union rights, to push back against union demand for greater protection. By terminating the most experienced, skilled workers to cut costs and remove the union, Fairmont management has shown that they are ready to abuse workers’ rights and livelihoods in a pandemic, and expose guests to even greater risk when the hotel reopens for domestic tourism.
No doubt these short-term cost savings – combined with attacks on trade union rights – will translate into much greater costs for Accor. This includes the costs incurred by the reputational damage to the Accor and Allsafe brands at a time when the company is desperately trying to gain the trust and confidence of travellers and guests.
The three new farm laws imposed by the Indian government threaten to undermine food security across the country, depriving rural communities of their right to food, and driving marginal farmers and farm workers into greater poverty and insecurity. This comes at a time of rapidly rising food prices and a looming global food crisis – a crisis that the United Nations warns is the worst global food crisis in 50 years.
By removing the regulation of the production, supply, and distribution of cereals and pulses, the new farm laws put everyone’s food security at risk. Even a marginal increase in food prices will have significant impact on people’s ability to access their right to food and nutrition, especially for vulnerable rural communities and workers on poverty wages or in precarious employment.
By dismantling the protection of marginal and small farmers, the new laws promote the rapid expansion of the corporate control of agriculture. The ability of small and marginal farmers to secure fair prices and to negotiate the sale of crops will be severely undermined, with agri-food conglomerates and supermarket chains gaining increased power over pricing and greater profits. The new laws actively promote unsustainable chemical-intensive contract farming that puts crop diversity, farm workers’ health and safety and community health at risk.
While the current protests correctly draw attention to the threat that the new farm laws pose for farmers’ livelihoods and food security, it is vital that we recognize that these laws completely ignore the rights and interests of farm workers who work under various employment arrangements, including payment in kind.
For example, in Punjab and Haryana farmers growing rice and wheat receive crop price support from the government because these crops are essential to food security. Farmers refuse to employ local agricultural workers, instead exploiting the vulnerability of migrant farm workers from other states such as Bihar and UP. These migrant workers are not paid a living wage and live and work in hazardous conditions. Farm workers like these make up the largest group of producers dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. Yet they are denied access to right to a living wage, right to food and nutrition and a safe working environment.
While we must strongly oppose the new farm laws, we must promote a more sustainable and equitable agriculture. The new farm laws threaten to remove crop price support by states, which clearly threatens the income and livelihood of farmers. This must be opposed. But in doing so we cannot simply defend the status quo. Guaranteed crop prices for farmers did not translate into fair wages for farm workers or living wages. The only way that regulations supporting crop prices can translate into fair wages for farm workers is that farm workers can exercise their right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, as guaranteed in ILO Convention No.11. Only through the right to form and join unions can farm workers combine to exercise the collective power needed to secure fair wages, safer work, and food security.
Therefore, we oppose the farm laws that promote the corporate control of agriculture and sacrifice food security for corporate profit. At the same time, we call for progressive agricultural reforms that guarantee agricultural workers’ access to their right to freedom of association and combination through which they can access right to a living wage, the right to food and nutrition, and the right to occupational health and safety. We call for change that promotes environmentally and socially sustainable agriculture as the basis for realizing genuine food security.