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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Input to Tourism Skills Indaba by COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi


19 October 2006

Dear colleagues and friends,

It is indeed an honour to be able to speak to this important event on skills development in the tourism industry. It is only through this type of collective effort by stakeholders that we can ensure equitable growth in our country, with skills development as a critical element in overcoming past inequalities and oppression. I am sure this conference will go far in addressing the deep-seated backlogs that face the tourism industry in this connection.

Tourism is particularly important as a potential source of jobs – a critical imperative given the extraordinarily high rates of unemployment that face our people. Joblessness is a root cause of poverty and social conflict.

But very poor jobs won’t bring our people out of poverty or, in the long run, grow our economy. We need to ensure that the upswing in tourism increasingly benefits all the workers in the sector, including those traditionally relegated to the low-level service jobs – cleaning, gardening, waiting on tables – that occupy so many in the industry.

Certainly we are concerned about the poor quality of jobs in tourism, although it is notoriously hard to get worthwhile data on the sector. Still, according to the Labour Force Survey, in hotels and restaurants some two thirds of workers earn under R1500 a month. Many of these workers are in relatively informal shebeens and restaurants. But many work in our grandest hotels.

As in most services, despite low pay, the level of education is fairly high overall. The Labour Force Survey reports the average hotel and restaurant worker has 11 years of formal education – admittedly often poor quality schooling, but still more than most workers across the developing world.

But the Survey also shows that only one in seven workers in the industry has had access to training. Moreover, management remains disproportionately white, especially in the main chains. The face we present to tourists still has to be transformed.

Again, because tourism is a service industry, skills are critical. Our people must learn how to treat their visitors, both from South Africa and abroad, with courtesy and efficiency. At the same time, skills development is crucial to overcome the inequalities due to apartheid, which still mark the industry deeply.

The legacy of apartheid is critical to understanding workers’ demands around skills development, and indeed the current system of skills. The restrictions on training for black workers formed a central pillar of apartheid, and one of its most cruel and inhumane aspects.

Black workers were systematically denied formal training. If they nonetheless gained skills on the job, they were denied formal qualifications recognising their skills. As a result, most had little hope of promotions, but remained stuck in lower-level jobs for their entire working lives. In too many cases, black people were hired as elementary, unskilled workers, even if they had matric, and given no opportunity to move into higher positions. Given this enforced hopelessness about promotions at work, it is no wonder the labour relations remained tense and conflict-ridden.

The situation was especially oppressive for black women in the public and private services, including tourism. Most workers in these industries must have at least matric, but they are treated often as unskilled labour with no hope of moving upward. We should ask our colleagues here from business how many of your waitrons and cleaners have formal education – and how many of you have explored how they could move into higher positions?

We appreciate that the new skills development system aims to address this legacy. For workers, critical elements include recognition of prior learning, which should give appreciation and qualification for skills learned on the job. It should let them take up training at the point where apartheid stopped their progress through the qualifications framework. For elementary workers, it should provide ABET and lifeskills training.

Skills development must also contribute directly to equity. It should be linked to career pathing, so that workers have an incentive to improve their skills and their work. It should support employment equity by expanding the pool of black workers who can take their rightful place in skilled and managerial positions.

It is against these yardsticks that we must measure proposals for skills development in the tourism industry. Will it help us overcome the legacy of apartheid as it improves the ability of our people to serve the public? Will it ensure greater equity and improved utilisation of the skills our people already have? Will it contribute to job creation?

In all of this, we must remember that the aim of skills development and job creation in tourism cannot be to establish a class of oppressed and unskilled servants for the rich. Rather, we must seek to enable our people to participate in developing a vibrant South African culture and tourism industry that can provide opportunities for our own people to learn more about their own country, as well as opening a door on our society to visitors from abroad.