Respect needed for workers in biggest industry

Tourism is New Zealand's most lucrative industry but conditions and attitudes towards those working in it don't reflect its importance, says Auckland senior lecturer and PhD student David Williamson.

Williamson, head of department for Hospitality at Auckland University of Technology, has completed a PhD on the hotel sector from 1955 to 2000, a period of enormous change and a useful framework from which to view the current state of the industry.

While tourism recently overtook dairy as New Zealand's biggest export earner, Williamson says the hotel industry has long been typified by low wages, casualised contracts, high staff turnover and poor working conditions. It is also highly dependent on migrant workers and work within the sector is often viewed as undesirable due to a perceived lack of opportunities.

"This is problematic as the tourism industry is a huge driver of economic and social wealth in New Zealand," he says. "The labour force really needs to be examined closely and changes made so that conditions and attitudes align with its importance in the economy."

Williamson says there has long been a downward trend in pay rates that continues to be unaddressed: "Pay rates in real value terms fell 24 per cent between 1980 and 2000 [the period of his pay rates research]."

At the same time, profits for the multinational hotel chains dominating the New Zealand market continued to flourish.

The reasons behind the poor conditions and attitudes towards hotel work are multifaceted; the New Zealand attitude towards such work is partially formed by traditional antipathy to the concept of "service", he says.

"New Zealanders, unlike other parts of the world, don't adequately respect the concept of service," says Williamson. "In Margaret McClure's important book on New Zealand tourism, The Wonder Country (2004), she says 'for many people the concept of service is too close to servility'."

That sentiment has been repeated throughout the history of our tourism industry, resulting in what Williamson calls "an off-hand attitude towards service and a lack of understanding around the concept of hospitality".

He also claims human resources departments within hotel chains have not evolved with the industry, remaining at a level formed during a period of "strongly anti-union, unitarist approaches, as well as during a time of economic recession" - creating a short-term, cost-saving focus, instead of evolving towards high performance human resource as has happened in many other industries.

His thesis suggests hotel employment relations (typified by high turnover, low pay and poor working conditions) can be linked in part to this less sophisticated human resource management.

Williamson says the industry is vibrant and rich in potential and advocates change from a focus on short-term profit for shareholders to the development of a highly trained workforce - reflecting the tourism industry's importance within New Zealand's economy.
That change would be win-win, he says, boosting the perception of our tourism industry and beneficially affecting shareholder returns anyway; employers needed to help facilitate such change.

"Within our department at AUT, we produce hundreds of highly trained professionals who flourish within the hotel sector both in New Zealand and overseas," he says. "It's vital New Zealand understands how important this work is and value the contribution hotel workers make to the economy."

"At the moment there is too much focus on greater and greater profits. There needs to be more focus on developing excellence in the industry and providing workers with high quality training and better rewarded opportunities."

Read more from AUT here

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