A Snake, After All, is a Snake


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Last month, Hyatt Hotels Corp. fired 98 housekeepers, many of them veteran employees who made $15-per-hour, and replaced them with $8-per-hour "temporary" workers provided by Hospitality Staffing Solutions, an outsourcing firm in Atlanta. While the details are murky, and Hospitality Staffing Solutions has refused to respond to this correspondent's repeated request for specifics, at least some of these new employees are reportedly "guest workers'' on H-2B visas. 

The guest workers were trained by the Hyatt veterans, who were told the new recruits were not replacements, but part-timers who would "fill in" for sick and vacationing permanent workers. According to union officials, after successfully training the new workers, the Hyatt veterans were told to clean out their lockers for "health purposes." They gamely did so. The next day they were told to hit the road. 

The H-2B visa program was designed to allow employers to hire temporary help for peak and holiday periods; for example wait staff and construction workers during the summer months. Now, it seems, outsourcing firms are luring H-2B's to what in better times would be permanent positions, but due to today's crushing unemployment are breezily turned into part-time, some-time jobs without benefits or a living wage. Since H-2B holders are tied to this country by their jobs, they have no power to object to conditions or terms.  Voiceless and without recourse, they are to some minds the ideal employees--they keep their mouths closed, their complaints to themselves, and their eyes averted.   

This episode recalls the old story of Mr. Snake and Mr. Toad. Snake offers to carry Toad across a rising river, promising not to bite him.  Toad agrees, and hops on for the ride. Half way across the river Snake coils back and bites him. Toad's dying words are: "You promised not to, why, oh why?"  Snake responds sadly: "Because I'm a snake." 

Cutting costs, especially labor costs, is the quickest and easiest way to pad the bottom line. But this race to the bottom is not only immoral, it is debilitating in the long term. A low wage, transient workforce is a shaky base from which to build a corporate pyramid. Indeed, history shows it will not stand. Yet, despite self-serving rhetoric claiming otherwise, this is increasingly the direction corporations chose to go. Rather than innovate or perform their way out of whatever difficulty they're in, companies cut their workforce and their payroll and hope for the best.  

Hyatt replaced an experienced, loyal workforce with a bevy of ill-paid temporary workers with no voice and few rights. This is not surprising. What is surprising is that so far, they seem to be getting away with it. Brian Lang, vice president of the Unite Here Local 26, which represents Boston's hospitality workers, told me that what happened at the Hyatt was the worst infringement of worker rights he'd wittnessed in his entire career. Let's try to make sure it remains the worst, rather than being just a taste of what's to come.  Mr. Snake cannot help being a snake. But it's a fool's game to hop on its back and hope for a smooth ride to shore.

Photo Credit: Flickr User markhillary

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Ellen Ruppel Shell is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Journalism at Boston University. She is the author of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

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