In a campaign launched on International Women’s Day, B.C. hotel workers are putting the spotlight on pandemic firings they say are turning back the clock on the treatment of women in the workforce.

Organized by Unite Here Local 40, which represents hotel workers in the province, the BC’s Unequal Women campaign highlights how women workers are bearing the brunt of the economic fallout of the pandemic. And it points to mass firings as the biggest cause of concern.

“The hotel industry would not be as profitable of an industry if it wasn’t for the hard work, the dedication of a lot of long-term women workers,” said Zailda Chan, president of Unite Here Local 40, at the campaign’s press conference.

“And we’re not going to stand back. We’re going to fight back.”

One year ago, the hospitality industry was among the earliest and hardest-hit sectors by COVID-19. This quickly led to the layoffs of around 50,000 hotel workers in B.C. — many of whom are women, especially women of colour.

Elisa Cardona, who emigrated from Mexico, is one of them.

Before the pandemic, Cardona worked for seven years as a full-time hostess at Pacific Gateway Hotel, which has now been taken over as a federal quarantine site. After being laid off in March 2020 with no assurance of being brought back, she said it has been “a very stressful time” trying to take care of her two children as a single mother.

“I have to choose between paying for my rent and hydro or paying for my rent and food every single month,” Cardona said at the press conference.

“I’m close to being homeless.”

Elisa Cardona
Alex Nguyen

Throughout the past year, the union and workers have been fighting for laid-off workers to be able to return to their former jobs when the situation recovers. But the union says many hotels have so far refused to make that commitment and some have already started terminating their workers, prompting concerns that they will replace long-term workers with minimum wage workers.

“That’s why I’m standing here today and saying no to unequal women in the hotel industry because we deserve the rights to return to work,” said Cardona.

“We gave the best years of our lives to our hotel and now we’re on the verge of losing everything we have worked so hard for.”

“The hotel industry wants to turn back the clock to another century.”

Now, hotel workers are calling on the public for solidarity. In particular, the campaign is urging customers to avoid hotels that have not committed to bringing workers back. According to Chan, Unite Here Local 40 will soon launch a webpage to identify those hotels.

“We need to really send a strong message to the hotel industry that if they continue to fire women, there will not be business in their hotel,” Chan said.

She added that there will also be more job action at other hotels.

Currently, workers at Pacific Gateway Hotel and Hilton Metrotown have already voted to strike to push back against terminations and threats of mass firings. Meanwhile, former workers at Pan Pacific Vancouver — where current staff have voted to join Unite Here Local 40 — are pursuing a class action lawsuit against the hotel for alleged wrongful terminations.

B.C. Hotel Association was unable to provide comment by press time.

At the same time, Chan noted that the campaign is a way for the union and workers to put new pressure on the provincial government to extend the right-of-recall period for laid-off workers.

Last year, hotel workers staged a 22-day hunger strike to push for stronger job protection. The strike ended after B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains said “a pledge for employers to offer rights of first refusal to existing employees when work resumes” would be included in government economic recovery packages. But this did not happen when the provincial government introduced a $105-million package for the tourism sector later that year.

“The women are not just going to sit back and be saved,” said Chan.

“Today is one day that marks that day that you know we should really be celebrating how far we’ve come along. But instead we’re here saying, ‘You know what, we’re back. The hotel industry wants to turn back the clock to another century. But that’s not going to stop us.’”

Zailda Chan
Alex Nguyen