By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The hotel union yesterday said it is "bracing for the worst" after the British Colonial Hilton blamed the "unprecedented" COVID-19 fall-out for forcing a 15 percent cut in its workforce.
Darrin Woods, the Bahamas Hotel, Catering and Allied Workers Union's (BHCAWU) president, told Tribune Business it remained fearful that other major Bahamian resorts will follow the Hilton's lead by permanently terminating workers even though all properties it has spoken to have pledged to "ride out" the post-pandemic storm without taking similar action.
Voicing fears that the hotel industry, and its employees, are "in for a long summer", Mr Woods said he was not going to "assume it's a bed of roses" for his 5,000-plus members' continued employment prospects despite employer assurances.
Identifying San Salvador's Club Med resort as a particular concern, given its reliance on visitors from COVID-19 scarred Europe, the hotel union chief said a gradual "ramp up" in tourism activity was likely following the July 1 re-opening of The Bahamas' borders given that the industry was entering its traditionally slower summer season.
Mr Woods spoke out after the British Colonial Hilton confirmed that slashing its workforce was necessary to ensure "the continued viability" of the downtown Nassau resort. Pablo Casal, its general manager, in an e-mailed response to Tribune Business inquiries, said: "As a result of COVID-19, the hospitality industry is seeing an impact to business that is unprecedented.
"Given the direct effect this has had on our hotel, we have worked with ownership to evaluate options that help us ensure the continued viability of the hotel. After careful consideration, we were regretfully forced to reduce our workforce. This difficult decision reduces our workforce by approximately 15 percent, including management, at this time."
The percentage figure indicates that the British Colonial Hilton, which is owned by China State Construction, the contractor that built the $4.2bn Baha Mar resort and is now completing the $200m Pointe expansion adjacent to the downtown resort, has permanently terminated - not just temporarily laid-off - between 30 to 45 staff. The resort, though, remained open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, albeit with reduced services and amenities.
Mr Woods yesterday said 22 of his union's members were impacted, with most of the job cuts occurring the in the banqueting and catering department. He added that the union had unsuccessfully sought to persuade the resort to hold-off, citing the fact that the Government has extended the 12-week period before mandatory redundancy kicks-in to one month after the COVID-19 emergency powers order ends.
The union chief said its attorney will explore whether the British Colonial Hilton has committed any breach related to this extension, but hinted he was not hopeful that any solid case would emerge. "Their [the hotel's] thing is that the banqueting business, or group business, they don't see it coming back before next year; the first quarter next year," Mr Woods told Tribune Business.
"For us the concern we have is with the extension of the lay-off period the Government has done, we just need to know this was not in contravention of that. For us, we're saying: Suspend redundancies until after that period ends. We pointed that out to them, but they said they've got to do what they've got to do. Our attorney is going to look at it for what it is."
Mr Woods said the union "tried to get them to hold off" after it "got wind" of the British Colonial Hilton's termination plans last week. Despite discussions with the resort, it was supplied with a list of staff impacted earlier this week.
"They paid for the notice period," he added of the resort. "One or two members say they were short. The work for us is not completed. We have to check out what the discrepancies are and get them resolved either way."
Almost all other hotels with staff who are members of the union's bargaining unit have assured the BHCAWU that they have no permanent termination plans, but Mr Woods indicated he remains unconvinced. "We hope it doesn't spread," he said. "We've talked to the other hotels and they've said they're going to ride it out as long as they can.
"We remain concerned because if all factors remain the same, we could expect some things to be faced. We are bracing for the worst. We are going to put in all protocols and do what needs to be done. We're not going to sit here and assume it's a bed of roses. We're in for a long summer."
Mr Woods, noting that there has been "open dialogue" between the union and hotel employers, voiced particular concern about Club Med's Columbus Isle property, which had "pretty much said it is extending the [staff] furlough into later in the year" due to uncertainty over when European borders and flights will resume.
"Everything is so fluid, and we can only hope something firms up," Mr Woods said, adding that the uncertainty associated with the strength and timing of any tourism rebound - and the possibility of a COVID-19 second wave - were the critical unknowns facing The Bahamas.
He likened the situation to post-surgery healing, and the need for the body to regenerate both inside and out. While The Bahamas appeared to have got COVID-19 under control internally, the "outside" portion - meaning the US, and its ability to get the virus under control amid nationwide protests - was outside this nation's control.
This will be key to both reviving Bahamian tourism and the economy, and mitigating the risks associated with a fresh surge of COVID-19 infections when the economy opens up. "It is very precarious because we are relying on another set of people to keep us going," Mr Woods told Tribune Business.
"We were able to bounce back quickly from the Gulf War, 9/11 and then there was 2008-2009, but I've not seen it as bad as this. Not only is The Bahamas affected but tourism around the world is affected at the same time. This is like nothing anybody has ever seen in the history of tourism. This is by far the worst we've seen.
"It cannot get any worse than what it is. It can only get better, and getting better may take a while. We're heading into the traditional slow period, which means things will not ramp up in August, September and October. It will be a gradual ramp up. From where I stand we have got to pray hard."