JHTA head appeals for caution amid calls for increased wages

MONTEGO BAY, St James — Head of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA) Robin Russell has urged caution in any attempt to increase salaries within the hospitality industry.

The move, he warned, could make the local sector less attractive to business operators who are already paying workers less in other destinations where stays are cheaper.

Russell, who was recently elected as head of the influential group, waded into the debate on the issue last Friday, referring to it as the elephant in the room. He was delivering the keynote address during the opening ceremony for Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce Expo 2022.

“Please note when we speak about increased salaries that Jamaica competes with the rest of the world, especially places like the Dominican Republic and Mexico, which have lower rates in employment wages and lower… hotel rates. We have to be careful that an additional expense will not make us uncompetitive,” he told the gathering.

Russell is also general manager at Deja Resort in Montego Bay.

An upward movement in salary, he said, would only be possible if there are changes within the product; less hassling of visitors, cleaner spaces, and better facilities in general.

“When these things happen we will start to see the benefits for all — higher rates, higher gratuities,” he said. “More tourists on the streets shopping, more money for craft vendors, more money for shop owners, more money for restaurants, more money for bus drivers, and that is how we grow the economy.”

For now, he pointed out, workers’ salaries are buttressed by tips unmatched in other sectors.

“No industry… pays a gratuity, which is almost like a profit share, comparable to the hospitality sector. Ranging from five to 10 per cent on some properties — and these are on sales, not profit — plus the basic pay, plus tips,” he noted, adding that there are opportunities to make money in Jamaica’s hotel sector.

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 novel coronavirus 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.

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