Working for the Weekend
The majority of hotels offering the best benefits to staff on Phuket are international chains, though some independent hotels compete head-on with global giants, according to a recent survey.
Working on weekends continues to be a hit and miss proposition for island hotel staff.
The survey shows that 50 per cent of Phuket's upscale and luxury resorts expect staff to work a five day work week, 23 per cent offer alternative schemes between five and six days and 27 per cent remain at six days.
Some hotels are willing to compromise with either five or six days off per month or two days in low season and one in high season. The majority of hotels surveyed were Thai chain operators but a number of international chains took part.
Companies that provide the bare minimum to their staff tend to be older legacy hotels, local groups and one off properties.
It is important to note that this list does not cover all registered accommodation but reflects the upper end of island hotels.
Once you get into budget and mid-scale hotels, the vast majority offer a minimum wage, often using seasonal contracting and only provide what is required by law.
The survey shows how much work remains to be done by Phuket's most important economic indicator in terms of human capital.
I cannot help but recall moving here in the year 2000 and seeing hotel staff being transported to work in a vehicle better suited to hauling livestock than people. Open air lorries with wooden benches and little protection from the wind or rain was the accepted standard in those days.
JW Marriott and the multihotel Laguna Phuket first started using air conditioned buses which today, for the most part, have become a common site on the road of Phuket.
Over the past few years an influx of bright, shiny, new branded-hotels have seen 5 day work weeks taken up as standard operating procedure. Much of this has to do with the larger chain's global standards and the need to recruit the best and brightest hotel staff available.
Pragmatically speaking it's much easier for new developments to fall into step with the times than their aging counterparts.
Recently we are seeing a number of older hotels transact, close and upgrade. Hotel employees are terminated and the new owners receive a clean slate to work with.
Is there a moral conundrum in all of this? Certainly, for an industry which prides itself as one focused on service, this requires a human touch.
But there are business issues that cloud the mix. For hotels, the two most expensive operating overheads are staff and energy costs (electricity, water etc…).
Some hotel owners, with properties built in the 1980s up to the end of the decade, have been content to operate for maximum profit, with little reinvestment into their aging assets.
Styles change. Travellers' tastes and the geographic source of business do as well. In many cases, an increasingly competitive market has forced these properties to cut rates and lower expenses. Here lies the crux of the problem: if these properties were to suddenly bring benefits in line with their glossy counterparts, it would only hit the bottom line.
Phuket is evolving and over the next decade we will likely see as much redevelopment as new building. Many hotels are past their shelf life but have had their lifelines extended by a new surge of mid-scale, budget-oriented, travellers.
The inevitable decline has been postponed, but for how long? Unfortunately for staff, this creates a two tier employment market – the 'haves' and the 'have nots'. Ultimately, as an industry, the biggest failure is to adequately train, develop and promote staff to take them further in their careers.
We don't need more maids, gardeners and m i n i m u m wage earners in Phuket. What is more relevant, is to increase productivity, develop skills and nurture the next generation of hotel workers to be closer to broader international standards.
A continued rise in the minimum wage and rampant inflation are warning signs. At a time when Asia leads the world in the post financial crisis recovery, our hotel industry needs to start coming to parity with what is termed the developed world Of course benefits come at a cost, but, much of this can be offset with hotels restructuring productivity, training and raising expectations to a higher level.
Phuket is world-renowned for its glittering luxury hotels and the same attention that goes into capital investment now needs to be spent on human capital.