British Columbia

Hotel workers' hunger strike ends with hope hospitality jobs will be protected

Members of Unite Here Local 40 hoped the protest would put pressure on the B.C. government to ensure all hospitality workers who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic would be called back to work when it's safe to do so. The union now believes it's on the "pathway" to achieving that goal. 

Protest in Victoria ends day after minister's pledge to ensure laid-off staff get first refusal of former jobs

Naden Abenes, a Hyatt Regency room attendant, at a protest in Vancouver on June 3. Abenes, who had been employed at the Hyatt for 12 years before she was laid off in the spring, took part in the recent Victoria hunger strike, consuming nothing but water and vitamins for five days. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

After more than three weeks, a group of laid-off hospitality workers in B.C. has ended a rotating hunger strike that was organized in a bid to protect their jobs.

About 50 hotel workers took part in the "Fast For Our Jobs" protest, which began Aug. 10 on the lawn of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria and operated in shifts.

An average of five workers fasted each day, with the longest individual fast lasting six days.

Members of Unite Here Local 40 hoped the protest would put pressure on the B.C. government to ensure all hospitality workers who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic would be called back to work when it's safe to do so.

The union now believes it's on the "pathway" to achieving that goal. 

On Monday, B.C. Minister of Labour Harry Bains said he'd work to ensure that any economic recovery package to the hospitality industry would contain a "pledge for employers to offer a right of first refusal to existing employees when work resumes."

However, the government refused to directly interfere in the collective bargaining process between unions and hospitality employers to ensure that recall rights — the right of a laid-off employee to be called back to work by their employer — do not expire before the pandemic ends and the industry resumes normal operations.

The minister's statement accompanied the release of an independent report by labour lawyer Sandra Banister on the effect of COVID-19 on B.C.'s unionized hotel sector. 

According to Unite Here Local 40, more than 50,000 members — roughly 90 per cent of its membership — lost their jobs in only two weeks when lockdown measures came into place in the spring.  

An uncertain future

The hunger strike was among a string of recent protests organized by hospitality workers to raise awareness over their plight due to the pandemic. They have included included multiple rallies, vigils and a car caravan in downtown Vancouver.

"I'm really proud of all we did to organize this hunger strike," Naden Abenes, a laid-off room attendant at Vancouver's Hyatt Regency Hotel, said in a statement from Unite Here Local 40.

"Hotel workers refused to stay silent and brought this crisis to the forefront."

Abenes fasted for five days, living off only water and vitamins, before ending her participation due to health concerns. The Filipino-born hotel worker had been employed at the Hyatt for 12 years before she was laid off in the spring.

"I understand that the government has to do [what's necessary] to protect public health," she told the CBC last month. "But what are they going to do [for] us in return?"

If her recall rights aren't protected, Abenes and other workers fear employers will hire younger, cheaper workers to replace them.

'A moot point'

But a group representing the hospitality sector says that's not the case.

Employers have collectively invested millions of dollars in training and benefits for the workers in question, said Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C. 

Hiring and training a new workforce would be "prohibitive," he said.

While both the union and the industry association are unclear on exactly what Bains's promise of a "pledge" means, Judas called the idea of a pledge a "moot point" that's not necessary to enforce. 

"The vast majority of hotels are desperately trying and wanting to bring back their employees," he said. "They just can't yet because the business isn't there.

"We need to do everything possible as an industry to make sure that employers survive. And, by extension, that's good for employees," he added.

However, Stephanie Fung, a spokesperson for Unite Here Local 40, said a few hotels in the Lower Mainland have already used the pandemic as an "excuse" to get rid of long-term employees. 

B.C.'s tourism sector has requested a $680-million relief package from the province.

In June, the provincial government announced plans to spend $1.5 billion to bolster B.C.'s battered economy.

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