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Stephanie Fung is the com­mu­ni­ca­tions orga­niz­er for UNITE HERE Local 40, which rep­re­sents work­ers in the hos­pi­tal­i­ty indus­try in British Colum­bia. Rajani Tada­ka is a hotel work­er in Van­cou­ver and a mem­ber of Local 40. In the wake of the exten­sive pan­dem­ic-relat­ed lay­offs in hotels in BC, many employ­ers chose to fire laid off work­ers rather than recall them as need­ed. Scott Neigh inter­views Fung and Tada­ka about the impact of the pan­dem­ic, about the mass fir­ings, and about the BC’s Unequal Women cam­paign, which is pres­sur­ing employ­ers and gov­ern­ments to take action to get the most­ly-women who have been fired their jobs back.

Tada­ka start­ed work­ing at the Pan Pacif­ic hotel in Van­cou­ver in 2015. She was a house­keep­er, which meant clean­ing, mak­ing beds, mop­ping, dust­ing, vac­u­um­ing, and so on. It was phys­i­cal­ly demand­ing work – the pace set by man­age­ment and the num­ber of rooms assigned per shift meant that it was always stress­ful and exhaust­ing. But she and her co-work­ers worked hard and well, and it was a living.

In the indus­try as a whole in recent years, work­ers had made some gains. In par­tic­u­lar, there were his­toric wins in strikes at a num­ber of hotels in down­town Van­cou­ver in 2019, which result­ed in wage increas­es, improved job secu­ri­ty, bet­ter sex­u­al harass­ment pro­vi­sions, and more.

But when COVID-19 hit in March 2020, more than 50,000 work­ers in BC’s hotel sec­tor were laid off. It was a hard moment but one that work­ers under­stood, giv­en the pub­lic health cir­cum­stances. Soon enough, the ini­tial broad pan­dem­ic shut­down eased. And while ongo­ing pub­lic health restric­tions of fluc­tu­at­ing inten­si­ties have meant that hotels have remained less busy than usu­al, nonethe­less many resumed some lev­el of activ­i­ty very quickly.

It was then that work­ers and the union start­ed to notice a dis­turb­ing trend – rather than recall­ing their laid off work­ers when there was work for them to do, some hotels decid­ed to fire them as a way to reduce costs.

At Tadaka’s work­place, she said the ini­tial com­mu­ni­ca­tions from the employ­er sug­gest­ed that they would be recalled as need­ed. But with­out warn­ing in June or July 2020, they start­ed fir­ing peo­ple. They did it in batch­es of 20 or so, per­haps to avoid trig­ger­ing cer­tain employ­ment law pro­vi­sions that would have required them to give more advance notice or greater com­pen­sa­tion. Tada­ka said that house­keep­ing work was ini­tial­ly being done by man­agers, and then casu­al, on-call work­ers were hired through an agency at low­er pay than the fired workers.

Accord­ing to Fung, many hotels are try­ing to take advan­tage of a tem­po­rary health cri­sis to fire their long-term work­ers in order to cut costs, to save mon­ey, and to hire a work­force that will accept cheap­er wages.” Shes says this shows the cru­el­ty” of the employ­ers. The major­i­ty of work­ers impact­ed by the fir­ings are women, many of them immi­grant and/​or racial­ized women.

Work­ers have been respond­ing to this injus­tice in a num­ber of ways. This has includ­ed action at spe­cif­ic work­sites. The work­ers at Pan Pacif­ic, for exam­ple, only vot­ed to join Local 40 last August. Local 40 has been pres­sur­ing spe­cif­ic employ­ers, includ­ing Pan Pacif­ic and oth­ers, to com­mit to bring­ing their fired work­ers back. They are also strik­ing at Pacif­ic Gate­way, locked out at Hilton Metro­town, and may be fac­ing job action at oth­er work sites soon. As well, a work­er at Pan Pacif­ic has launched a class action law­suit over how the fir­ings were car­ried out.

Local 40 launched the BC’s Unequal Women cam­paign to put pres­sure on the employ­ers and on the provin­cial and fed­er­al gov­ern­ments. It has involved peti­tions, let­ters, lob­by­ing, and oth­er basic tools of advo­ca­cy. They have had some suc­cess in build­ing sup­port among com­mu­ni­ty groups and oth­er unions, both for spe­cif­ic job actions and for the broad­er cam­paign. This has includ­ed a call by the BC Fed­er­a­tion of Labour for a boy­cott of the Hilton Metro­town and Pacif­ic Gate­way hotels. Last August, the cam­paign trav­elled to Vic­to­ria and work­ers held a pub­lic hunger strike to demand action from the provin­cial gov­ern­ment. Accord­ing to Fung, some juris­dic­tions in the Unit­ed States have enact­ed leg­is­la­tion that enti­tles work­ers laid off due to the pan­dem­ic to be recalled when con­di­tions improve. Canada’s only cur­rent NDP gov­ern­ment has not cho­sen to do like­wise in BC. And at the fed­er­al lev­el, the cam­paign is draw­ing atten­tion to the Trudeau government’s rhetoric about a fem­i­nist recov­ery” from the pan­dem­ic, giv­en that the fir­ings are par­tic­u­lar­ly impact­ing work­ers who are women and/​or racial­ized. They want him to tie any pan­dem­ic sub­si­dies for hotels to rehir­ing laid off workers.

Local 40 is ask­ing peo­ple to learn about and sup­port the cam­paign at their web­site. And as pub­lic health restric­tions con­tin­ue to ease, they hope that when peo­ple trav­el, they use the lists on the site to ensure they spend their mon­ey only at BC hotels that have treat­ed their work­ers fairly.