By Neil Hartnell
Tribune Business Editor
Hotel workers were yesterday warned it would be “absolute madness” to further damage a tourism industry already “reeling” from Hurricane Dorian with industrial action during the peak winter season.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business the last thing The Bahamas needed was “to shoot ourselves in the foot in our number one industry” given the economy’s fragile state in the category five storm’s aftermath.
Responding to threats of escalating industrial action from the Bahamas Hotel, Catering and Allied Workers Union (BHCAWU), Mr D’Aguilar said industrial action in any form would “throw a wrench” into a Bahamian tourism rebound that has far outpaced efforts by Caribbean rivals to recover from their own hurricane devastation.
He explained that Forward Keys, which tracks forward booking data for the Ministry of Tourism, had found that The Bahamas had returned to 80 percent of pre-Dorian arrivals figures within one month of the storm’s passage.
This compared to the 15 months and 20 months taken by Puerto Rico and St Maarten, respectively, to each return to 70 percent of their pre-Irma and Maria tourist arrivals figures, but Mr D’Aguilar warned that The Bahamas’ recovery would be jeopardised by any industrial disruption in the tourism sector.
Emphasising that he was “not taking sides”, the minister said he “implores, begs” that “cooler heads prevail” among both workers and employers such that any action is avoided given that it would undermine the combined efforts by the Ministry of Tourism and private sector to promote the message that The Bahamas is open for business post-Dorian.
Mr D’Aguilar spoke out after Darrin Woods, the union’s president, told Tribune Business on Friday that he was moving the strike vote certificate obtained in late June 2019 from his “back pocket to the front pocket so that its easy to reach”.
He added that the union had told its members, who work at properties such as Atlantis, the British Colonial Hilton and the Lyford Cay Club, to not go beyond their employment contracts and job descriptions - in effect a ‘work to rule’ - due to unhappiness with the progress in reaching a new industry-wide industrial agreement.
Also fuelling the discontent, Mr Woods revealed, is the Supreme Court’s rejection of the union’s bid to prevent the Four Seasons Ocean Club from switching to a bi-weekly payroll as opposed to the previous weekly one.
Arguing that the change was implemented during the lowest point of the annual tourism season, with workers forced to wait two weeks to receive pay for working just two to three days, Mr Woods said the union feared it establishes a precedent that will swiftly be followed by other Bahamian resorts.
He also questioned why the Ocean Club made the move in the midst of the union and industry’s negotiations, and suggested it further highlighted how employers were exploiting the absence of a registered industrial agreement to push through the changes they want.
Mr Woods indicated that the ‘work to rule’ could escalate to slowdowns and, ultimately, strike action if workers remained dissatisfied, and argued that there was “no good time” to follow such a course.
However, Mr D’Aguilar blasted: “It would be absolute madness for there to be industrial action in the hotel sector as we approach the Thanksgiving weekend and the Christmas break. The Bahamas has taken a substantial blow from the effects of Hurricane Dorian, and our arrivals numbers are obviously down because of two things.
“First, the hurricane impacted our inventory in Abaco and Grand Bahama, and second, the negative public reaction that was wrought on the entire Bahamas as a result of the hurricane has also dropped arrivals to other destinations in the country.
“We are reeling from the effects of Hurricane Dorian and, as we mobilise all our available resources to counter this effect, we are having a modicum of success in doing that,” the minister continued.
“If you look at the effects of hurricanes Irma and Maria on Puerto Rico and St Maarten, for example, it has taken Puerto Rico some 15 months to reach 70 percent of pre-hurricane arrivals, and taken St Maarten 20 months to reach 70 percent of pre-hurricane arrivals.
“In the case of The Bahamas, Forward Keys expects the recovery to take a lot less time. In one month, The Bahamas is back to 80 percent of pre-Dorian arrivals. We’re having success in getting the message out that The Bahamas is open for business, but to throw a wrench in that rebound - to take industrial action now - would be extremely detrimental.”
The Bahamas’ faster rebound has been aided by the fact it has multiple islands and destinations, including the major tourism destination of New Providence, that were unscathed by Dorian whereas Puerto Rico and St Maarten only have one island.
However, the Thanksgiving holiday that arrives in two weeks’ time marks the start of the peak winter tourism season. Together with the Christmas and New Year’s period, it provides the lead-in to the February-Easter period when resorts and sector operators typically earn the big profits that carry them through the rest of the year. Thus any disruption at this time would have far-reaching financial ramifications.
Mr D’Aguilar further warned: “The economic impact of a ‘work to rule’ or slowdown in the delivery of services would compound an already negative situation. I would hope that the union would not consider strike action or a ‘work to rule’ at this particular time.
“Everybody has to realise the country has been substantially negatively impacted by Hurricane Dorian, and for there to be even talk of strike action now would compound an already unfortunate situation. I hope that cooler heads prevail. This is not the time to be talking about industrial action given the effect of Hurricane Dorian on the economy.
“We are in a completely different economic environment today than we were three months ago. It’s very important for people to step back and realise how tender the economy is right now. The country is reeling from reduced arrivals and less economic activity,” the minister of tourism added.
“We don’t want to now compound that by affecting our number one industry ourselves. We shouldn’t shoot ourselves in the foot by doing anything right now that effectively impedes tourism. That’s the engine of the economy. As quick as we can get back to where we were, we will look at situations like we did three months ago, but everything has changed.
“We need as many visitors as possible to come to this country to help our brothers and sisters in the north, and to do anything that affects people coming to our country, spending their money and creates the resources to rebuild Abaco and Grand Bahama would be most unfortunate.”
Mr D’Aguilar said Bahamian hotel employers were “unaware of any issues” that might spark the union into industrial action, while “the court ruling is the court ruling”. He added: “I implore, beg... employers and employees to settle their differences because this is not the time for the economy to be slowed by industrial action in our number one industry. This is just not the time.”
The minister also expressed concern that any impact to visitors’ experiences from industrial action will undermine the ‘Bahamas open for business’ promotion tag-line. “Now you’re confusing the market, especially at a time when everyone will come to see if everything is as you say it is. If not, that is most unfortunate,” Mr D’Aguilar said.
“I’m not taking sides. I’m not saying either is right or wrong. I’m saying let’s not try to negatively affect or negatively impact an already negatively impacted.”