The B.C. government shouldn’t provide bailout funds to the tourism industry without ensuring stronger protections for laid-off employees, says an advocate for hotel workers.
“We think at a time when they’re considering a $680-million request for aid to the tourism sector, they have to also consider how they help provide protection for workers laid off due to COVID-19,” said Michelle Travis, research director for Unite Here Local 40, a union representing workers in B.C. hotels, food services and airports.
“There seems to be reticence to address the challenge facing 50,000 hotel workers across the province,” she said. “We think they need to act urgently. We’re concerned they may not act on this.”
There are many stories about layoffs and terminations in the sector, including at the Holiday Inn and Suites in downtown Vancouver and at the Four Points by Sheraton Vancouver Airport. In that case, the hotel was claiming the pandemic excused it from the responsibility to provide notice or pay severance.
Travis recently raised the issue of terminations in the sector in an email to Lisa Beare, B.C.’s minister of tourism, arts and culture.
She cited the case of the Pan Pacific hotel in Vancouver where management has asked employees to accept a rollback of their employment rights or risk losing their jobs. “They are being asked to give up their regular status, their schedule and seniority to become casual, on-call workers. It also appears they are being given $250 to sign away any claims on severance,” she wrote.
Without action from the province, she said, “more workers will be stripped of their rights and fired. There are too many hotel employers out there who have no interest in doing the right thing and keeping their workforce intact.”
Rajini Fjani, who cleaned rooms at the Pan Pacific, said 40 of her former colleagues, some of whom had worked at the hotel for 30 years, got letters asking them to accept becoming casual employees. “Of course it’s unfair,” she said.
With five years working at the hotel, Fjani herself was among about 80 people fired. She’s worried about covering expenses, including tuition fees for two daughters in post-secondary school. “They fired us and it was a total shock.”
In a July 29 letter responding to Travis, Beare acknowledged that the pandemic continues to heavily impact the sector, but said Labour Minister Harry Bains was the right person to approach since the matter falls under the Employment Standards Act.
Finance Minister Carole James gave a similar answer last week. “There’s a variety of agreements in place with operators of hotels and with workers,” she said, noting that in some cases union collective agreements apply and others would be covered by labour laws.
“I know those discussions are going on and are not necessarily part of the recovery process, but part of the discussions the labour minister is having with those groups and organizations as well,” James told The Tyee.
The government has said it has $1.5 billion to spend on economic recovery from the pandemic, and James said it is still looking through proposals and she couldn’t yet give an indication of the government’s thinking on any specific proposal.
Bains and the Labour Ministry have previously said they expect layoffs and terminations to be handled according to the Employment Standards Act and regulations.
Travis from Unite Here said the province’s labour laws are insufficient to deal with what workers are facing during the pandemic. “Laid-off workers are being terminated from their jobs before the industry has had a chance to recover,” she said.
K.M. Chan was fired in May by the non-union Shangri-La Hotel in Vancouver where he had worked serving in the restaurant for more than five years. Renovations had been started in January and he anticipated being brought back when they were done. Instead he was one of about 60 fired from the staff of around 100 during the pandemic.
The team had worked well together and took pride in its high ranking on Trip Advisor and achieving five-star status, Chan said. “I don’t understand why they had to terminate us,” he said. Workers felt “tossed aside” and it was “upsetting and sad,” he said. ““It doesn’t feel right.... They just scattered everyone.”
The hotel could have sought a variance under Employment Standards to extend the layoff period and avoided firing people, he said.
Chan is receiving the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and will qualify for employment insurance, and is looking for work. “The market isn’t good for hospitality, especially with this many people laid off,” he noted.
Travis said unionized workers will soon face similar issues unless the government creates a right-of-recall for all workers that remains in place until the pandemic is over.
Workers should have a chance to return to their jobs once the industry recovers, Travis said.
If not, employers will hire lower-paid workers as the industry recovers, she said. “That creates basically a race to the bottom.”
UPDATE: Labour Minister Harry Bains has appointed labour lawyer Sandra Banister to review workers’ layoff and recall rights in the hotel sector. Banister will work with employers, unions and other relevant organizations, the government said in a release. She will provide a report to Bains by Aug. 20.
*Story updated on Aug. 11 at 1:21 p.m.