Tourism Talanoa: Tourism Staff Struggles are Real

Tourism Talanoa: Tourism Staff Struggles are Real

FHTA, 30 March 2020 – “The hardest part about all this is not being able to buy sugar, flour, rice, you know…the basics.”

Those were the sentiments of former tourism industry employee, Bio Mataitini. He has spent the better part of the past decade as a dive instructor for Reef Safari Fiji.

He has now been sent home, along with numerous others, due to the impact of the current health crisis that has gripped the world.

His passion for showing off Fiji’s unique sea life to visitors is evident when conversing with him but he feels there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.

Now farming near Mulomulo, Nadi is his current only focus, as he attempts to scrape by with what little funds, he has to help support his household, which include his parents and other family members.

His four brothers are also from the tourism industry and they too have been hard hit by the industry cutbacks. Together they are working on an ambitious plan to plant subsistent crops that will be divided between business and private consumption. This is their only source of income that he says he can contribute to right now.

Assistance from the Fiji National Provident Fund (FNPF) for tourism industry workers has been made available and Bio has already lodged his application in anticipation. Because he has sufficient funds, he will be able to withdraw his full amount without requiring any topping up from Government.

He does worry that while he is able to use his own savings to get him through this difficult time, his balance is going down, he won’t be getting anything added till he gets his job back and this will affect his pension withdrawal once he reaches retirement age. But for now, it is something to look forward to.

Muni Shobna of the Octopus Resort in Waya Island is concerned about the same issue. She is currently on leave without pay and she knows that the allocated sum from FNPF will not last long.

She has been at the Octopus Resort for over 15 years in various capacities and is currently the Reservations Head and Operations Supervisor. She knows that the $1000 withdrawal will not stretch far during the coming months.

“I have to pay rent, pay the electricity, do the shopping. After that how much is left? It won’t be enough for the second and third month,” Shobna bemoans.

“Lucky it’s just me and my daughter. Imagine those with big families. Those who had to return to the village. It’s going to be really hard for them.”

At full capacity, the Octopus Resort had around 125 staff manning the resort. Currently only the resort’s General Manager and two security staff are left looking after the property and they are doing so without remuneration. They keep the property maintained, secure and ensure generators and other equipment are looked after.

Their final guest left on March 22 and the resort closed its doors the next day. All other staff members rushed to board boats back to the mainland as the nation’s ban on passenger travel between islands came into effect on Sunday 29 March.

Shobna points out that in doing so, staff residing in Lautoka were caught outside the city lockdown cordon and were left in a lurch.

She has had to assist some of her colleagues find temporary accommodation in order to wait out the lockdown. “It’s hard, you know,” she says, while understanding the need. “They just want to see their families.”

She knows it will be difficult to seek new employment during the crisis as the influx of recently unemployed tourism industry workers will also be looking for work as well and no-one will be looking to hire new staff in this current economic climate.

Her phone continues to ring with colleagues asking her when the resort will be open again for business.

“The staff keep calling me and to enquire about financial assistance,” she says “It’s so hard for them. I wish the Government will take a survey of the impact of (job losses due to) the COVID-19 has in the villages.”

That struggle is the same on Taveuni where Akanisi Rawalai, or Taka as she is known to friends, is based. Amongst other duties, she is the personal assistant to the Directors of Paradise Taveuni, a dive resort. From a full manning of 62, the resort has 17 staff members still on the premises, the majority of whom reside at the staff quarters and are all on leave without pay. They do odd jobs around the property for a few hours a day and are paid with meals that come mainly from the resorts own farm that has pigs, chickens, vegetables and a large variety of fruit. Staff are also provided fuel to allow them to fish occassionally to add to their meals.

“Our resort directors are so kind. They’re supporting all the staff who are unable to return home” said the Matuku, Lau native.

She has five dependent family members at home relying on her as the sole breadwinner, but she’s glad for repayment holidays on both bank loans and Court’s Hire Purchase. She is unsure about her next step as she knows they cannot rely on the resort’s owners for too long.

“Tourism is the only thing we know on Taveuni (if you don’t farm). I don’t have any other source of income here” she said.

Bio, Shobna and Taka’s options are few and their future and that of the families they support look bleak while they cope as best they can.

Like the rest of Fiji, they’re hoping and praying for this medical crisis that has forced a world-wide economic downturn to be over sooner rather than later, or risk running out of what little they already have.

By: Fantasha Lockington – CEO, FHTA

Published in the Fiji Times on 30 March 2020