SAFE HOTELS – ensuring safe hotels for guests and workers in the COVID-19 era

safe for guests, safe for workers, safe for everyone 

The tourism sector in the Asia-Pacific region was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the hotel and resort industries. Flight cancellations, restrictions on international travel and the near total lock-down of most countries led to zero occupancy rates and the temporary closure of most hotels and resorts for three to six months.

It will take several more months for the industry to recover. Much depends on the step-by-step recovery of domestic tourism and events (weddings, banquets, conferences), followed by the gradual return of international tourism and travel.

There is no doubt that recovery will take time. It will be challenging. One of the most important challenges will be recovering the trust and confidence of people in travelling again and for guests to return to hotels. This confidence and trust will depend on whether travelers and guests can be assured that hotels and resorts are safe.

We have all heard the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact described as unprecedented. Undoubtedly everything has changed in the COVID-19 era. This also means that the hotel and tourism industry cannot respond with the same branding and advertising it normally used in the past. People do not want the image of safety. They need to know a hotel or resort is actually safe.

The only way to guarantee a safe hotel or resort is to develop and implement comprehensive guidelines on public health and sanitation and directly involve workers through their unions. Steps must be taken to ensure that everyone – management, workers and guests comply with these guidelines. For workers, compliance with any protocols or guidelines and its day-to-day implementation cannot rely on penalties and threats. It must be based on better work arrangements, more training, secure jobs (so that it actually matters), and workers’ active involvement.

The implementation of health & safety protocols cannot be left to the kinds of HR corporate communication that existed before COVID-19. This is the same communication that left hotel workers confused, uncertain and at risk in the early days of the pandemic. Feel-good corporate communication failed. It created stress and anxiety. It put lives at risk. Saying “we are all in this together” and “give us your feedback” (then imposing wage cuts or indefinite unpaid leave), made it very clear to hundreds of thousands of hotel workers that they were definitely on their own.

If the recovery of the tourism industry relies on rebuilding the trust of travelers and guests, then it also needs to restore the shattered trust of hotel workers.

As with all potential workplace hazards that put workers’ health at risk, the only effective approach to ensuring a safe workplace is to directly involve workers through their unions. By establishing joint health & safety committees involving unions and management, and implementing comprehensive guidelines on health and sanitation together, safe hotels/safe workplaces are possible.  

With all the recognition of frontline workers in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, we must also recognize that workers in hotels and resorts will continue to be on the frontline in the COVID-19 era. Continuous interaction with people at close quarters in crowds in hotels and resorts, means continuous exposure to the risk of COVID-19 in the workplace. A hotel is the public: eating, resting, sleeping, entertaining, meeting, working, within an enclosed space. Hotel workers – working continuously in that space – need to go home to their families healthy.

In the COVID-19 era there is finally recognition of the value of the work that hotel and resort workers do. Current efforts in some hotels and resorts to retrench workers or force early retirement makes no sense at all.

A safe hotel ultimately depends on the services provided by experienced, skilled workers in secure jobs. Getting people to overcome fear and anxiety to become confident travelers and guests again means guaranteeing the quality of service and safety. (Tens of millions of people just spent months at home in lock-down. They don’t need more home cooking or self-service.) The skills and experience behind this service creates trust. To retrench workers or force the most experienced into early retirement simply shatters this trust (again).

Finally, it is recognized that health and sanitation is vital to guaranteeing a safe hotel and public health. The work of cleaners, housekeepers, room attendants, dishwashers, is recognized as essential. It can no longer be treated as “unskilled”, non-core work to be outsourced and underpaid. It is work that determines whether a hotel is safe or not. Lives depend on it (and that’s no exaggeration in the COVID-19 era). It is work that has value and that value must now translate into better wages and secure jobs. No amount of rebranding or corporate magic tricks will change that.  

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