By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
“Enormous confusion” exists even among hotel union members over whether industry employers want to eliminate or alter the automatic 15 percent gratuity, Tribune Business was told yesterday.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business that “it’s a matter of conjecture as to who agreed to what and what’s in dispute” as the fall-out from last week’s overwhelming vote in favour of a strike by Bahamas Hotel, Catering and Allied Workers Union (BHCAWU) members continues.
Implying that the union’s actions are premature, given that negotiations between itself and representatives from the Bahamas Hotel and Restaurant Employers Association (BHREA) are not scheduled to begin until June 27, Mr D’Aguilar pointed to the contradictory positions taken by both sides over the gratuity.
“There’s enormous confusion because the union is saying the mandatory 15 percent gratuity charge is under attack, and Atlantis is saying it was never an issue,” the minister told this newspaper.
“I don’t think they’ve even got into the room to start negotiations. The only way this can be resolved is if their meeting goes ahead, all matters are vented and we see what the issues are. It’s critical they do that. It’s a matter of conjecture who agreed to what and what’s in dispute.
“It’s not just the hotel workers that are potentially affected by some sort of industrial action; it’s the whole nation - taxi drivers, tour operators, straw and beach vendors. It’s very important we get this right.”
Mr D’Aguilar’s primary concern is to avoid any industrial action that may disrupt - and threaten - the double digit percentage increases in visitor arrivals and hotel earnings indicators that The Bahamas has enjoyed for 2019 to-date in a sign that the sector may finally be putting a decade-long post 2008-2009 recession hangover behind it.
However, the “confusion” over the gratuity referred to by Mr D’Aguilar extends even to hotel union members themselves. Dave Beckford, a hotel union member and employee, and recent presidential candidate, told Tribune Business yesterday: “You don’t know what to believe.
“The union is saying what’s in the proposal, and that they [hotel employers] want to take away this, that and that, but the Atlantis president has now spoken to that issue and said they were never taking away the gratuity.”
He added: “This contract situation has been going on so long that the only people hurting in this are the workers. I’m not surprised it’s come to this.
“If both parties had a better working relationship it may not have been so bad, but there was never a good working relationship when Nicole Martin was president, and I don’t think the employers see Darren [Woods, current president] any differently he was the general secretary at the time.”
Hotel union members, in the run-up to last week’s strike vote, were especially incensed that the BHREA’s opening industrial agreement proposal seemed to seek an elimination of the automatic 15 percent gratuity that has almost become an industry staple.
Gratuities, in particular, represent 80-90 percent of tipped employees’ take home pay, and their purported end would result in an alarming drop in income and living standards for those affected. So vexed were union members that they burnt copies of the employers’ opening offer during a meeting at Workers House.
However, Tribune Business sources yesterday backed statements by Audrey Oswell, Atlantis’s president, that employers are not seeking to eliminate the 15 percent gratuity. They added that the union may have misinterpreted the offer.
While the employers left the section relating to the gratuity blank, this newspaper understands this does not imply a zero percent rate. Instead, they are seeking a “more equitable distribution” of the gratuity among the various worker categories that currently benefit from it.
Besides waiters and servers, the gratuity paid by customers is also split among back-of-house staff, bus boys and other worker categories. However, the way it is split - and its distribution - varies between different types of employees and what the hotel union itself agrees to.
Tribune Business was told that hotel employers currently have no say in how gratuity revenues are distributed, with the method and split varying from resort to resort and between different types of restaurants.
Members of the Bahamas Hotel and Restaurant Employers Association (BHREA), which acts as the bargaining agent for the Atlantis, Cove, Ocean Club, British Colonial Hilton, Melia Nassau Beach, Lyford Cay Club and Towne Hotel properties, want the gratuity split formulas and breakdowns to now be agreed and spelt out in the new industrial agreement.
However, Sheila Burrows, the union’s general secretary, told The Tribune yesterday: “If you put zero percent in the proposal with no figure, what that mean? Zero percent.” Asked by Tribune Business what the union’s next step is following last week’s strike vote, she said “we did what we had to do” and to “stay tuned” for further developments this week in the Labour Day run-up.
Tribune Business previously reported that resort employers hold the upper hand in any industrial agreement negotiations because the last industrial agreement between the two sides expired back in 2013, and its terms are being treated as if it is still in effect.
This resulted from the union missing the October 8, 2012, deadline by which it had to submit its proposal for a new industrial agreement - as it was required to do by the conditions set out in the old deal.
With hotel union members enduring VAT’s introduction and subsequent increase, and cost of living rises, without a wage increase since 2012, pressure on the BHCAWU leadership to deliver a new industrial agreement has steadily increased.
However, last week’s strike vote has now given the union some leverage, and a bargaining chip to play in upcoming talks with employers, even if the basis for the anger-driven vote was “wrong and off-base” - as described by one source.
Mr Beckford yesterday said it was “long overdue” for employers to come to the negotiating table, and added: “Both parties need to come together and negotiate and agree on a proposal that benefits everybody - the union which represents the workers, and the employers who represent the hotels. It’s good for the industry. There’s no question about it; we need a contract negotiated.
He added that hotel union executives were “tight-lipped” on the contents of their own proposal, and called for greater transparency so that the 5,000-6,000 hotel staff know what is being negotiated on their behalf.
“You have a responsibility to tell members what’s in your proposal,” Mr Beckford argued. “We don’t know what’s in the proposal; we only know what the employers want to take away based on what Darren said in the meeting.”
Other alleged proposals that have aroused union ire are delaying the payment of Christmas bonuses until the second week of January and tying them to the hotel’s performance, meaning they are not guaranteed. Nor will the traditional provision of Christmas ham and turkey by resorts for their staff be guaranteed.