Sunday, April 22, 2012

Casualized work force- a necessary evil?

Trying to take a balanced stance on the vexing question of the growing trend towards casualized labour is a task I find most difficult. It has been simmering below the surface for many years and occasionally makes headlines when industrial disputes force the question back into focus.
I am not going to talk about the Ports of Auckland dispute, because that has and will continue to find a life of its own. My concern for those who have far less political power is paramount for me at the moment. I would like to take a look and pose a few questions about those who work on a casualized basis in the hospitality industry.
I believe that the bottom line for managers and shareholders in the hospitability industry is the profit margins. That is not so bad in itself, in that they are in the business to make money. They are pushed to maintain a position in the market which means that they have to compete and keep their costs down. This can be achieved in a variety of ways.
I am being cynical when I point to the little notices in bathrooms of hotels pointing the need to maintain a balance with the environment by not asking for new towels every day. Plausible as a real green issue or is it just a way of saving money?
A more obvious way of cutting costs is in the area of the labour force. All hotels have ‘down-times’ and the vexing question of ‘occupancy rates,’ is one that managers and accountants struggle with throughout the year. One week can see the ‘full house’ signs up while in the next, there is a dramatic drop in numbers. I do not envy those who are responsible for juggling the needs of the hotel and the equally important needs of worker to maintain a reasonable wage.
Most room attendants are on the basic wage or if they are lucky, a dollar or two above it. Some have been in the job for many years. Given that their hourly rate is low, then they must have problems when they are asked to work for sometimes around 20 hours per week. The managers will claim that they need to be flexible about employment and hours in order to meet the varying demand for their services. I suspect that few of them are on casualized rates and conditions.
For the room attendants and other positions in hotels, it must be very difficult to have any sense of planning their finances under these conditions. Even in best of times their wage packets are hardly bulging.
Of course flexible hours may well suit a portion of the workers in the hospitality sector. I am sure students take advantage of being able to fit their studies in with earning some money in order to keep their ‘costs’ for study and living down. There are also workers, who do not want full time employment, but that still leaves a significant number who would dearly like to have more certainty; to be able to meet their outgoings.
The hope of ever owning a house, especially in the Auckland market would seem like a pipe-dream for many of these workers, unless they have a partner who earns a great deal more and who has better conditions of employment.
Next time you stay in a hotel or motel for that matter, consider the person who cleans your room. I am sure you have tales of rooms not meeting your standards, but think about that person and how they are coping. They are often ignored, while other higher profile employees garner the limelight.
We must not ignore the plight of workers anywhere, who are being pressured into contracts that do not give them any certainty. You may say---‘that this is the way of the real world.’ We may come to the conclusion that if we want a fairer deal for our friends and colleagues who find themselves in this position that the answer is increased costs for services. It is a bit like the argument about cheap imports and lower taxes. If we want to meet the needs of ‘our people’ then we may all need to pay a little. Then again, maybe the shareholders and managers should lower their expectations around their income---- yeah right! Is the gap going to continue to widen, until something breaks?