FHTA Tourism Talanoa: A Double Edged Sword

FHTA Tourism Talanoa: A Double Edged Sword

FHTA, 16 February 2023 – Fiji hit the $4 national minimum wage (NMW) mark for unskilled workers at the beginning of the year, marking a milestone for this sector along with a general acceptance by all concerned that this was perhaps a long time in coming.

While this might not be quite where the Unions would like to see the NMW, we believe under the current circumstances, there is increasing confidence that we can continue strengthening consultations and negotiations in this area.

The migration of workers, for the tourism industry staff as well as staff from manufacturing, construction, finance, IT and other industries to other countries, has been long seen as a positive step in the national perspective.

While these workers have been enticed over to our Vuvale neighbours with a promise of a better life, especially where wages are concerned, it is still a leap into the unknown for our island nation where productivity is not as widely recognized as a concept closely related to, expected, demanded even in some circumstances, at work.

After all, the reason tourism does so well here in Fiji is that as a people, we embrace and embody so well the spirit of “island time” and a generally slower pace with which we help our visitors relax and unwind.

It is as natural as who we are, how easily we laugh and enjoy this beautiful island nation.

The “Fijian Product” that is tourism, is all about having Fijians in tourism.

We know our people are welcomed overseas, skilled or not, and the added attraction of a pathway to full migration where even family members get supported to join them makes for an exciting life choice.

But there are several negative impacts on a nation’s economy that one might not necessarily see, more specifically on the tourism industry to a much higher degree; and these need to be framed against already existent global challenges to better appreciate what the context is for Fiji’s unique experience.

Workers looking for better job security post-pandemic were already moving into other industries if they had not already decided on a business that could be operated from home, or moved back to farming or fishing for subsistence earnings. Especially where several people from the same family unit were all employed in tourism which is often the case for families and communities in tourism hot spots.

Add to this the quickly increasing Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) footprint in Fiji that also found a saturated market of educated, skilled workers who spoke English well and with fairly neutral accents; many of them having been exposed to tourism and therefore easily adaptive to being trained in new skills. And this new industry continues to grow in leaps and bounds.

Remittances reached $1billion in 2022 for the first time, and remain the second highest foreign exchange earner after tourism which achieved $1.4billion in receipts with only 71% of its prepandemic visitor arrivals for the same period.

Access to these remittances does not just mean people have extra money coming in from family working overseas to support them. It also means that many people can choose not to work if they can rely on this to sustain them while providing much-needed support to elderly family members or their young children.

Imagine therefore, that as this small island country reopened to the world after almost two years of closure that decimated its largest contributor to GDP, not so long after which the world around us has lost its own workforces for far more complicated reasons than first-world countries should have been more conscious of, suddenly also realized they needed access to skilled and unskilled workers.

Over 400,000 workers in fact, for just Australia alone.

Tourism as a result bore the brunt of this constant churn in both specialised and nonspecialised areas, which has led to the current trend for consistent training and the increasing reliance on looking for skilled people from abroad, which comes at a great cost to the industry and is felt by individual businesses on their bottom line.

The migration of highly skilled and experienced workers can result in a loss of valuable human capital and knowledge that can be difficult to replace immediately. This can negatively impact the competitiveness of the tourism industry and the wider economy as we become more aware of other industries voicing their own concerns on the loss of employees to overseas labour schemes.

And while no one begrudges the need to look for greener pastures, the domino effect this has when skill gaps impact service delivery, productivity and the on-time delivery of products means that Fijian businesses cannot be as competitive as they need to be.

We have to be more fiercely competitive because as a small island developing country that deals with a far more developed world, we are still forced to compete at the same level to ensure that what few products and services we can deliver, can match or exceed the world’s best.

The increase in labour costs or the constant reshuffling of priorities for many businesses that often includes reviewing staffing for non-priority areas might mean that many are forced to work with fewer staff who are being expected to do more now.

The latter not being very conducive to staff retention efforts or increasing exhaustion. But dwindling staff numbers and demand for better recognition or remuneration are often the predicaments that public sector entities find themselves grappling with.

We know this because public sector staff serving us often have no qualms to express this to us as customers. Sometimes in response to why service is slow or insufficient people are serving at counters, responding to our calls, application submissions, or processing the many things one must do to remain a compliant citizen or business.

Employers must therefore consider paying higher salaries to attract new workers whether local or from overseas or to retain hopefully more productive, existing staff.

Additionally, social impacts are starting to be felt as usually young Fijian workers move overseas to access better-paying jobs and opportunities.

These include family separation and reduced social cohesion as more and more young children around the country are being left with grandparents or other family members, and more often single parents are left to manage children and family obligations.

As social workers have already indicated, the increasing numbers of mental health cases postpandemic are now being further exacerbated by the negative impacts on the health and wellbeing of those in the wider community who have been left behind to cope with the disruption to family units.

What is increasingly clear is that both the private and public sectors must address these issues and actively change and implement policies that are in tune with the changing and more competitive nature of workforce retention.

And as human resource experts keep telling us, it is not just about offering a more attractive and fulfilling work environment, although these certainly help attract people.

If your workforce consists of young millennials, they might be well-educated and even trainable for the right skill sets.

But they’re often not mentally prepared for the eight-to-five grind, five or six days a week. And if they do sign up for this initially, they’re usually not prepared to stay longer than two years. If they even last that long.

New workers expect their hard-earned qualifications to be recognized, some flexibility to work from home or to take time off for “me time”, and support initiatives around health and wellness as part of incentives for joining a workforce.

Fostering a positive work environment by creating employee engagement programs can help workers feel valued and appreciated.

This can include activities such as team-building events, recognition programs, and open communication channels; the latter might even mean getting used to getting messages from them on social media platforms.

Many of our industry members who have these incentives in place advise that they have fairly happy and loyal staff as a result.

Another opportunity for encouraging staff retention would be to offer flexible work arrangements that can help staff balance their work and personal lives.

This can include flexible schedules, telecommuting options, and job-sharing programs, along with clear career pathways that workers understand and can work towards with leadership development programs that continuously prepare and groom our future leaders.

We are promoting and sharing the implementation of these strategies in the tourism industry to support better retention while continuing with accelerated training programs to keep those skilled pipelines full.

At the same time, we are also appealing to TVET institutions to step up their program offerings and review them to better address the actual demand for specific skills identified by the different industries.

In the words of British politician Priti Patel, “When it’s well managed, migration works in the national interest, for our communities, economy and country.”

But we believe as a small island developing country, that it also helps to be better prepared to ensure we can manage what we are left to work with.

Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA (Published in the Fiji Times on 16 February 2023