Two Fridays ago, I got a distressful email from a hotel worker. I don’t know if it’s a man or a woman because the writer hid behind a false name. In certain circumstances, anonymity is essential. Exploited workers who desperately need jobs are often fearful about speaking up for their rights. Here’s the email, which I’ve edited just a bit for grammar. But I’ve kept the writer’s aggrieved tone:
“Good day to you, Ms Cooper. I enjoyed reading your article in The Sunday Gleaner dated June 23, 2013 on ‘Night work for women’. I have a similar problem I would like you to bring to attention for me. I have emailed several talk-show hosts and people in authority and, to my surprise, it has fallen on deaf ears and no one cares. This is the issue.
“I would like to know if the labour law in Jamaica doesn’t protect hotel workers. The law says that a person must work 40 hours per week, which is equivalent to 2 days off for the workweek. Well, there is a big breach of the law going on because in most hotels, if not all, workers are getting one day off per week at the 40-hour rate. How can this be? Most days, workers even work overtime and no overtime money is paid. What kind of law is this? I am sure that the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Tourism are aware of this breach.
“We are grateful and give thanks for our jobs. However, the law of the country goes for all. Workers who are either dedicated Seventh-day Adventists or Sunday worshippers cannot do their commercial activities on weekdays because that one day off cannot allow them. Also, one day off cannot allow the body to get enough rest for the hard work that your employers require of you.
NO LUNCH BREAK
“Some managers even treat staff with no respect at all. Another issue is that due to the workload, we cannot get our full one-hour lunch break. Depending on certain departments like Housekeeping, some staff cannot even take lunch break due to the demands of a busy day. To make things worse, we are not unionised.
“I would like if you can highlight this issue for us and let it be known to the relevant authority. Please don’t turn a deaf ear on this issue like talk-show hosts. I assume that they don’t want to lose their regular free passes or accommodation. We need justice. You sound like a balanced person who will take up this issue. Thanks for your cooperation.
“Send me a confirmation email to let me know if you got this email because it’s not all the time we can listen the radio or TV due to work hours. Also, send me follow-ups of your investigations.
Anonymous hotel worker”
I did send the requested confirmation email. I also called the Ministry of Labour and Social Security to find out what the employment laws say on these contentious matters. As it turns out, Anonymous Hotel Worker (A.H.W.) is misinformed. The minimum lunch break is 45 minutes, not a whole hour. And full-time employees are not, in fact, entitled to two days off. It’s more complicated.
The National Minimum Wage Order, 1975 states: “Every employer shall, in each week during which any worker, other than an hourly worker … works for him, allow that worker one day as a rest day.” The language of the law is so roundabout. What it means is that full-time workers are entitled to only one rest day per week.
Furthermore, the Order states that, “The day on which the rest day of any worker is to fall in any particular week shall be determined by agreement between that worker and his employer.” Agreement is all very well and good. But how easy is it to disagree with your employer? Especially if you’re not in a trade union, you hardly have any power to negotiate deals with your employer. You end up doing what you’re told.
HIGH PRICE FOR ‘FREENESS’
Unionised or not, employees who work for more than 40 hours each week are most certainly entitled to overtime pay. If A.H.W. is telling the truth, the unjust withholding of overtime wages is, indeed, a serious breach of the law. But which employee is going to be bold enough to confront the boss when jobs are so scarce?
A senior manager at one of our hotels admitted that exploitation of workers is widespread in the industry. Refusing to pay for overtime work is a common offence. Not at his hotel, he hastily reassured me. I called the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association and rather naively asked if they knew of any hotels that were not paying overtime wages or if they had had any complaints from employees about not being paid for overtime work. The person to whom I spoke claimed, without a doubt, that no hotels are in breach of the law. I don’t suppose it would have been reasonable to expect any other answer.
But if it’s really true that many hotels are, in fact, failing to pay workers overtime wages and are not allowing any lunch break at all, the minister of tourism and entertainment ought to launch an investigation. Disgruntled workers are not an appealing advertisement for the tourist industry. And shamelessly exploiting cheap labour just isn’t good for business in the long run.
A.H.W. cynically proposes that it’s access to free passes and complimentary accommodation that’s stopping journalists from exposing lawbreakers in the hotel industry. If that’s really so, it’s a high price to pay for ‘freeness’. Depending on the media to help hotel workers get justice is a lost cause. It’s not even a last resort.