Getting our people back to work

FHTA chief executive offi cer Fantasha Lockington says when the borders closed, tourism businesses had little choice but to close their doors, anchor their vessels, park their planes and store all the activity support gear when the stream of steady international visitors quickly dried up. Picture: FHTA

Besides the obvious loss of revenue to their bottom line, many would not be aware of the other missing factor that tourism operators consistently fret about losing during this pandemic and the subsequent border closures.

Their loyal and skilled staff. Many of them as familiar and close to them as family.

The famous tourism workers that beam with smiles that greet visitors on arrival, onboard transfer vessels and planes, or those with the soothing voices that monitor the reservations desks or even those with the experienced, calm dispositions overseeing large events or frenetic dinner services.

These include the hardworking ancillary staff that maintain the manicured lawns, golf courses and shrubbery, and the porters who gladly haul your luggage from one end of a property to the other while singing some glorious hymn, or these can be the polite wait-staff who process your meal orders and return with wonderful meals.

And let’s not forget those wonderful, maternal “Bubu’s” who collect the excited children and babies and take them off for hours of fun so that their parents can take a break.

These hospitality workers have been trained and moulded according to the standards of the various brands and when combined with their natural, genuine Fijian hospitality traits, is the reason that Fiji is Fiji, and why many tourism reliant countries consider this particular competitive edge a distinct and difficult factor to beat.

When the borders closed, tourism businesses had little choice but to close their doors, anchor their vessels, park their planes and store all the activity support gear when the stream of steady international visitors quickly dried up.

Consequently, that also meant furloughing the bulk of their staff on leave without pay, redundancy and termination. A small number would have been initially kept on for security and maintenance purposes.

Eventually, these numbers would be slowly added as the months progressed and weekends and public holidays allowed domestic tourism to provide an intermittent but welcome resumption.

This was then joined by destination marketing initiatives like the Blue Lane and Vacations in Paradise (VIP) travel options to gradually provide some respite to an industry that had almost shut down completely. Almost.

With the closures and the ensuing layoffs, staff returned to the nearby communities or villages, sought employment elsewhere or engaged in entrepreneurial enterprises.

While far more have remained unemployed, many long-term employees still within the communities or villages close to their previous workplaces are fortunate to be still getting support from their previous employers with food packs and monetary assistance, which is further boosted by the rotational work provided intermittently.

Often working only two days a week; it can be a tough choice for a skilled tradesperson to continue to work for his longtime employer or choose to take up an offer in a different industry that will move him away from his home but pay him a full week’s wage.

But then, this is a time for difficult choices, where years of training and loyalty may be traded for family support and pressure from financial institutions for repayments and hungry mouths to feed.

Human resources managers, often working reduced hours themselves are having to deal with accessing skilled staff at the drop of a hat, because that is almost literally how local bookings get done or making the many calls to staff to advise no work is available.

They must stay in contact despite either situation to ensure administrative requirements like redundancy packages and termination letters are processed correctly, extend furloughs, provide the required support for FNPF processing and be able to bring staff in for standard and COVID safe training.

The use of hotels for quarantine purposes for inbound repatriated Fijians has followed global practices for efficient management and the staffing requirements to support this has provided a much-needed boost for more tourism workers to get more hours in or get their jobs back.

As the nation currently ponders a total lockdown that will surely take place if we are to get the better of the current spreading of this virus, many tourism businesses must wearily go back to their Plan Bs or even Plan Cs, because domestic bookings are being cancelled and no new ones are being received.

Now central division accommodation providers are considering the merits and viability of being used as isolation facilities for potential primary and secondary contacts.

Along with the many conditions they must be compliant with, this will also provide an opportunity to bring back their workers.

Not just staff within the accommodation facility, but also maintenance, laundry, housekeeping, food preparation, cleaning, serving, gardening and tradespeople like plumbers, electricians and carpenters.

Work rosters and staff adjustments continue to take place depending on where the focus of the lockdowns are and their consequential impact on businesses within the industry and those far larger number of businesses supporting the industry.

Many may not realise the comprehensive efforts required for island resorts that have staff located there for weeks and even months now after the movement restrictions were imposed.

Staff who have been away from home and cannot return because they need their jobs and their homes are located within locked down zones.

Staff who cannot be replaced and are trained, experienced and relied on to ensure the resort is managed, any guests are safe, equipment is working and communication and transport are efficient.

And even while the lockdowns have thrown up their challenges to managing staff numbers relevant to working hours, accessing worksites and supply lines continuing; behind-the-scenes planning continues at the same unabated pace for borders reopening somewhere soon that keeps moving out of our collective grasp.

The tracks have been laid as they were, for a return to our perennial position as the must-visit tourist destination in the Pacific. There is no deviating from this focus. Never has been.

There is a constant need to ensure staff  stay on track with the ‘new-normal’ procedures and protocols that have been drawn up for the safety of the visitor, the staff and the country.

We still need a more defined timeline for when our borders will reopen and a formalised, widely communicated strategy for the key elements that have to be in place before this can take place.

Understanding exactly what must take place, be achieved, ticked off or sufficiently managed are critical elements for businesses, their staff and their suppliers to work towards as larger connected teams.

Even more critically, is ensuring the wider communities, industries and stakeholders are involved in understanding these conditions before we can say that everyone in Fiji is acutely aware of exactly what is at stake.

As we deal individually and within the context of our families or businesses with the increasingly changing situation between working from home, staying within known bubbles and maintaining lockdown protocols, spare a thought for many others in worse situations than your own.

Those unable to get to work and therefore cannot earn any money to provide for families and manage their debts.

Many like medical staff, disciplined forces personnel, tourism and other industry staff who are at work but cannot leave to go home. Because if they went home, they could not return.

For those small businesses that have been forced to close for months now because they have no international visitors and have had to send all their staff home.

Consider the numbers of even smaller businesses that are being added to this list because of closed supply chains, locations within critical locked down zones or by the nature of their trade are no longer able to entertain crowds or allow crowding.

And think about our fresh produce suppliers, farmers and market vendors with dwindling resources and limited to no customers.

An extremely bad situation – our border closures that brought an industry to a halt, has been worsened to nightmare proportions to lockdowns and the entire country coming to an eventual standstill.

Never have so many been relied on to collectively do what they must.

We have no other choice but to work together towards a safer Fiji because everyone is now affected somehow. Not just the tourism industry.

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