FHTA, 4 March 2021 – A recent local article repeated a statement that around 2000 tourism workers, who have been on leave without pay due to the economic downturn in 2020, were expected to be made redundant soon.
While this was always been a strong possibility due to the safety measures Fiji put in place by shutting borders against the pandemic early last year, the consequent drying up of international visitors resulted in no work being able to be provided by many business operators.
Putting the overall challenges into perspective, the IMF Departmental Paper “Tourism in the Post-Pandemic World Economic -Challenges and Opportunities for Asia-Pacific and the Western Hemisphere” notes that the COVID-19 pandemic, is a global crisis like no other in modern history, that has led to a sudden stop in travel and a collapse in economic activity worldwide.
It further says, “As a major economic driver, tourism accounts for more than 10 percent of the global economy and in many countries a large share of exports and foreign exchange earnings. The industry is also highly interconnected; multiple sectors are dependent on its performance. The pandemic has had severe repercussions on the complex global tourism supply chain, putting millions of tourism jobs at risk. Informal and migrant workers, particularly women and youth, have suffered disproportionately from diminished employment opportunities and lack of access to social safety nets, leading to increased poverty and slowing progress toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals”.
The impact on tourism businesses and Fiji’s economy has meant that the more than $2b revenue-earning and tax income generation capacity has been severely curtailed. This has taken a huge financial toll on the tourism industry, and Fiji, as it has on every other country and economy with a heavy reliance on this industry.
Since April 2020, all operational requirements have had to be reviewed to ensure businesses could survive the drawn-out impact of the COVID-19 induced crisis for which no-one around the world could predict (and to a certain extent, still cannot) correctly predict its eventual end.
Like any crisis, every business has had to re-evaluate strategies, change direction, review costs and consider how it must survive the crisis to enable it to reemerge eventually in a relatively strong position to continue to operate when and if circumstances allowed it to operate again.
Where work could not be provided because a business was forced to close, employees had to be let go. Where work was able to be provided intermittently, work hours for employees had to be redistributed. Whether businesses were hovering between closure and specifically timed openings, deciding to focus on scheduled refurbishing or extensions or changing their usual operational focus; all have had to drastically reduce workforce numbers.
The Fiji Hotel & Tourism Association members have been provided guidance and advice to ensure correctly complied with the Employment Relations Act (ERA) regulations. The Association has worked diligently with its members and the Ministry of Employment to apply as far as possible, that fair and transparent options were offered to employees as part of the critically required business restructuring environment that the industry was forced to implement.
Of the approximately 110,000 employees we believe were affected, at least 40% of the total number were provided with reduced hours or rotational shift options based on drastically slashed room inventory being made available, intermittent transport services and other activities that had to be reduced by up to 80% initially.
Employee support from tourism operators has been provided without publicity for the most part throughout the country and initially commenced with care packages at the beginning of the crisis. Other support that included soft loans, accommodation until ferry services restarted, cash and food assistance during the many cyclones experienced and going out of their way to contact staff who had been let go earlier so they could access the Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF) assistance, reflect the deep roots the industry has with the communities it operates from within.
With the eventual marketing of domestic tourism offering reduced rates to encourage local travel, the industry reached out, often with great difficulty, to reemploy a further 10% of employees for the weekends and holidays that are preferred.
By late 2020, the bulk of tourism employees had returned to their original homes. Many returned to farming available land, fishing or taking up home-based micro-businesses to support their families where alternative employment opportunities could not be found.
With a fortnightly FNPF payment to rely on and perhaps the support of new business ventures or family support, many tourism employees chose not to return to work for weekend-only work and reduced hours based on the currently limited demand. And continue to do so.
There are therefore fewer options available for an employer who has released his staff he currently does not need because he has insufficient or no work for them. What options are available if they have agreed to be on Leave Without Pay and choose not to return to work for the few hours a day they may be needed, and they represent a skill still required? Do you hire someone else to fix the plumbing, maintain the generator or keep the boat engine in working order?
Many tourism employers are scratching their heads considering it might have been a simpler option to have made all their staff redundant earlier, but they may have chosen not to do so initially due to staff loyalty, deep connections with the communities nearby from where their staff generally come from or simply because they know with certainty that they will need those same staff back again.
After all, he has provided the historical training, they understand the business operations and he cannot afford to start from scratch when the borders reopen as they inevitably will.
Yet businesses that took the bold and often painful option of mass redundancies earlier were heavily criticized with very little understanding of the background or reasoning behind this.
It is a vexing situation that no employment legislation or human resource expert could have foreseen or had simple answers for even 12 months into the crisis. Certainly, there are no precedents to fall back on. Each situation requires its own analysis that takes into consideration every aspect of the business needs, its location and organizational structure.
There are so many varying scenarios that MBA students would have hundreds of examples for which to apply their analytical problem-solving skills and still not come up with a generic solution that would be deemed acceptable to all concerned.
There are just as many stories of positivity and goodwill. As there are of the consequence of released tourism employees into other sectors. Chefs from hotels and resorts are making a remarkable difference around Fiji in the restaurants they have joined or personally opened.
Customer service, marketing and event management skills are being improved in many businesses. So, if you have been surprised lately with the friendly face or voice, the tastier food or food options, you might be experiencing the services of an ex-tourism worker who is grateful to have employment.
Human resourcing issues aside, the industry continues to dig deep to not just be able to remain in business but to ensure it can also stay compliant, safe and emerge still as strong and vibrant an industry as it was when it was forced into hibernation.
Fiji has a small population and despite its 300 plus islands, is a small country in comparison to its larger neighbours navigating the vaccination rollout. We, therefore, believe that the right vaccination strategy once implemented and successful, could be the impetus of a faster process to get back on our feet.
Herd immunity will be able to be achieved earlier than, for example, our tourism competitors in South East Asia who have more populous tourism-dependent economies.
This vision is feasible because our key tourism markets of Australia and New Zealand have begun their vaccination programmes and that bodes well for our tourism sector’s successful Blue Lanes and VIP lanes initiative.
As we make our way to maximizing vaccination across our population, we are also aware that several Pacific island states have not had any community transmissions of the virus, with many others having gone several hundred days without a local case.
So, the concept of a travel bubble with some regional neighbours, where quarantine-free travel between those with low or no incidence of COVID-19, could be closer to implementation as well.
For now, we continue to plan, adjust, look for amicable solutions with our mainly furloughed workforce and amend strategies so that when the opportunity arises, we are ready for whatever scenario we are faced with.
We know staying safe first is a priority and planning for our next steps comes a close second.
By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 4 March 2021)