MONTEGO BAY, St James — President of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA) Robin Russell on Thursday sought to clarify his position on wage increases within the hotel sector. He was not, he told potential employees, against hotel workers earning more than they do now.
"I made a comment recently which was carried in the press and it has brought robust discussions. I would like to clarify: I never said that hotel workers shouldn't get paid more money. I said caution should be exercised if wages across the industry were to be raised," Russell said at the Jamaica Youth Tourism Summit held at the Montego Bay Convention Centre.
He was referencing comments he had made at the opening ceremony of the Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce Expo 2022 on November 4. At the time Russell, who is general manager of Deja Resort, was just days into his role as head of the influential JHTA.
On Thursday, he said several factors would have to be explored in any discussion about an across-the-board upward movement in wages paid to hotel staff. He cited the link between budgets and forward bookings as an example.
"The wages are the largest expense of any hotel in our industry and if we raise those wages indiscriminately without raising income, you run the risk of bankrupting the business and putting the entire industry at risk," he warned.
The risk was especially great, Russell said, for smaller properties that are just returning to normal operations after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The decision on whether or not to increase wages, he said, would best be left to the individual properties.
"What I am suggesting is that each business will have to look at the increased wages and benefits in their own way and still maintain profitability because there is the challenge of the rising cost of living and the maintaining of that workforce," he said.
He reiterated his position that there is a real challenge of being uncompetitive in the international market space if wage increases are not handled properly.
"Lastly and most importantly, we compete on the international market with countries like Dom Rep and Mexico which have cheaper rates than us. I'm not only talking wages, cause they do pay lower wages, I'm talking about utilities; we still have a very high utility cost in Jamaica. We're talking import duty; these are things that allow them to be there. So we can't just increase our rates because then we become less competitive in a market that we already look like we're too expensive," he explained.
He, however, appealed to employers within the industry to create a better environment for employees within the sector.
"The workforce, as mentioned before, is the pillar that supports the entire industry. This is why it is imperative that tourism stakeholders create an environment that is conducive to employee satisfaction and retention," Russell declared.
For years critics and employees of the tourism sector have called for workers, especially those at the lower level, to be paid more. Low salaries have been cited as one of the reasons employees seek jobs abroad. There is now a global shortage of trained labour within the industry, from hotels and attractions to cruises. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced tourism to a halt, many found jobs in other sectors. Tourism has returned, but many employees have not. Jamaica is just one of the many destinations frantically trying to attract staff. The Government earlier this year launched a pension scheme that will provide a safety net for participating tourism workers when they retire. There is also a sustained push to provide training through HEART/NSTA Trust, the Jamaica Centre of Tourism Innovation, and other avenues.
Pre-COVID-19 figures put the number of tourism workers at more than 175,000. The sector contributes to about 20 per cent of Jamaica's gross domestic product.