A new report released recently by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is reporting that as a result of COVID-19, almost half a million Caribbean tourism workers now face the prospect of decent work deficits in the form of job losses, reductions in working hours, and loss of incomes.

The ILO report says this is happening alongside worsening working conditions, and the move to informal employment. It points to an overall significant and far-reaching reduction in the Caribbean tourism industry workforce, due to COVID-19.

The ILO report also advises that recovery from the adverse impact on sector jobs could be prolonged by a reversal in economic growth and calls for a human-centered approach to resilient and sustainable solutions. 

Titled “Tourism sector in the English- and Dutch-speaking Caribbean: An overview and the impact of COVID-19 on growth and employment”, the report includes ILO guidance and data, as well as research conducted around the region to demonstrate the severity of the crisis on the sector’s labour market.

COVID-19’s impact

The report notes that on average, the tourism industry directly contributes up to about 33 per cent of the region’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and over 52 per cent of export receipts. With approximately 30 million annual entries per year (the majority of which are cruise passengers, or from the USA), the industry provides direct employment to 413,000 workers in the Caribbean.

Lars Johansen, Director (a.i.), ILO Decent Work Team and Office for the Caribbean, observes that this figure represents, on average, 18.1 per cent of total employment. If indirect and induced employment is considered, such figures could rise to 43.1 per cent.

“While Caribbean labour force data is not yet available to determine exactly how tourism workers have been affected by the crisis thus far, studies conducted by regional organizations and preliminary national administrative data, however, have begun to paint a picture of what is happening,” he explains.

For example, reduced sample surveys indicate that 71 per cent of hotels had laid off staff by April 2020 to address the revenue shortfall caused by the crisis; some 66 per cent had also reduced the work-week or hours worked; and 53 per cent had cut salaries.

National-level data from Jamaica indicates that during the (relative) peak of the crisis, layoffs reached approximately 75 per cent of the total tourism workforce, with the remaining 25 per cent working only two or three days a week at a reduced rate of compensation.

In Belize, 30 per cent of the total beneficiaries of stimulus relief belonged to the tourism sector. These affected workers include tour guides, wait staff, kitchen staff, those in guest/customer services, housekeeping, and maintenance and upkeep.

Workers who are directly employed by businesses that rely on cruise tourism are likely to be most affected because of the delayed reopening of that part of the sector.

The ILO Report points out that tourism is traditionally a labour-intensive industry with a higher than average multiplier effect on employment in other sectors (for example, agriculture, food processing, construction, transport, as reflected by indirect employment figures). The industry tends to benefit vulnerable categories of workers experiencing disadvantage in the labour market such as youth, women and migrants and, more generally, is capable of absorbing workers with limited skill levels.

A rise in informal employment among workers in the tourism sector who have been affected by the crisis also is a concern, and may lead to exclusion from work-related social protection measures.

Recommendations for sustainable recovery

The ILO notes that in terms of government responses across the Caribbean, most countries have taken multi-pronged approaches such as direct transfers for individuals and loans, grants and tax relief for businesses.

One of its recommendations is that special attention be placed on dismissed workers, to ensure the shortest and most productive spans of labour market detachment, through measures aimed to enhance their human capital such as upskilling and retraining.

For the coming months or years, while the principles underlined in the ILO policy framework for tackling the economic and social impact of the COVID-19 crisis should lead any human-centred recovery process, few key elements stand out. In line with the already developed country and industry-specific protocols for the resumption of activities, occupational health and safety for workers and customers will remain paramount.

“I’m confident that the tourism that emerges from COVID-19 will be different from the tourism that we have grown used to. And the key difference will be significant integration of tourism and health functions to ensure the safety and health of visitors and locals alike,” says Mr Neil Walters, Acting Secretary-General of the Caribbean Tourism Organization (CTO).

There is also room for more sustainable recovery mechanisms such as positioning the tourism sector to lead the green and blue economic transition and job creation, which can be pursued through tripartite social dialogue between governments, employers’ organizations and workers’ organizations.

Barbados’ Coco Hill Forest, an eco-tour destination that connects tourism with regenerative agriculture and organic farming, is one example of how the region’s sector is adapting to a sustainable green economy. Staff at the 53-acre property offer hiking treks, group planting activities and farm-to-table dining.

“By creating alternative interpretations of what tourism and its employment can be for Barbados, we can create linkages with other sectors – in this case agriculture and food security. We have had lots of local supporters and foreign guests and have been selected as one of Trip Advisor’s Traveller’s Choice Winners for 2020,” says Mr Mahmood Patel, owner of Coco Hill Forest.