There are things we often see on our travels that we really would rather not see – things that provide us with a wake up call to take the industry beyond sustainable tourism and responsible travel to something altogether more benign. From extreme poverty and corruption to exploitation of children, animals and indeed hotel staff. But when, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), over 800,000,000 live on less than $1.25 per day, one in nine people are hungry each night and one in six adults are illiterate (two thirds of whom are women), it would be very difficult not to see these things – or to not want to do anything about them.
They of course make us feel uncomfortable or shock us, particularly if we are on holiday when we witness them. Tourism has a strong element of theatre, which is part of its charm, but also makes it as easy to ignore what’s going on behind the scenes as it is to buy garments made in a sweat shop.
But one of the fundamental reasons the world is in such crisis at the moment is because of the huge disparity between rich and poor, in every single industry, and the corruption and unethical behaviour that often go hand in hand with such a gap. The travel industry and travellers can all play their part to help ease the situation.
As the former UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said: ‘Experience shows that economic growth, on its own, is not sufficient. We must do more to empower individuals through decent work, support people through social protection, and ensure the voices of the poor and marginalized are heard.’ When (according to the World Travel & Tourism Council) the travel industry employs one in ten of the world’s working population, it’s a situation our consciences can’t ignore.
Staff exploitation in the global travel industry, for example, ranges from ridiculously low wages, long hours under pressure without a break and unhealthy conditions for live-in staff to inappropriate sexual behaviour by either bosses or clients. Poverty and limited options for employment often keeps many in unfair conditions at best, in cruel or inhumane ones at worst. Unions may not exist, or when they do, disempowered workers are told they are not ‘allowed’ to join, so suffer in silence.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) is the UN agency for the world of work responsible for drawing up and overseeing international labour standards. Their programmes of work includes child labour, equality and discrimination, modern slavery, safety and wages, and they regularly publish case reports from around the world highlighting not only the bad conduct going on but also situations where changes have been made, sometimes saving human lives. The IUF also lists actions taking place in support of workers rights in the food, farm and hotel industry that you can stand behind at iuf.org.
Some hotel groups are leading the way. It’s well known that Taj Hotels, which operates 108 hotels in 12 countries, treats it staff exceptionally well, which encourages huge loyalty and some of the finest hospitality in the industry. During the 2011 terrorist attack at the Taj hotel in Mumbai in India, by way of example, Taj staff quite literally helped save lives. Though 31 people died, surviving guests were overwhelmed by employees’ dedication to duty, their desire to protect guests and their quick thinking. After the event, journalists Rohit Deshpande and Anjali Raina attributed this in The Harvard Business Review to the attitude of the Taj group as a whole. ‘We believe that the unusual hiring, training, and incentive systems of the Taj Group have combined to create an organisational culture in which employees are willing to do almost anything for guests. This extraordinary customer centricity helped, in a moment of crisis, to turn its employees into a band of ordinary heroes.’
What else can we do to help? Research before you book so you can vote with your wallet. Before you make reservations, ask the 10 Tough NOW Questions To Ask Before Booking to find out the sustainability and social responsibility credentials of a hotel. Leave tips in the hands of the person you wish to thank and no-one else. When you see it, don’t be afraid to question irregular work conditions and report companies where staff exploitation and abuse is obvious when you travel. If you’re on social media, keep abreast of action and share it online in the NOW Forum. Remember we all have a choice to make – and when we make the right choices, it gives others hope.