The underbelly of paradise

We’re staying in a Swiss-owned hotel on a beach by Shanzu, a village with a population of about 50,000, located a short drive from the city of Mombasa. With a balcony looking out onto the Indian Ocean, framed by a white sand beach, this should be paradise. Sure, there is the occasional power cut (such as during the England vs USA match) and the prices of things change depending on whom we ask, but there is little room for complaint. This little scene could have been borrowed from holiday snaps on the Costa Blanca, give or take a vast ocean and the East African heat.

It is difficult to reconcile my own plenty with the poverty and struggle of those working in this hotel. We have befriended a number of the staff and, as we get to know them, they share more with us. We learnt yesterday that the non-management staff are working without pay for the ninth consecutive month. The Swiss owner, in a well-protected hideaway not too far from here, claims not to have the money to pay the staff. He refuses to meet with them and buys off the trade union representatives. Without support from the union and with many local people desperate for work, these unpaid members of staff have no choice but to keep working for free. The system of purchase in the hotel works on the basis of receipts – guests get a receipt for every purchase and pay the hotel’s cashier at the end of the week. The unpaid staff make enough to scrape by through unofficial cash sales which are then split between the staff of that particular area. The sum of money made is minimal – one barman, a man we call Whiskers for his distinctive moustache, told us how he had to pull his son out school when his salary stopped. He has been working at this hotel for 12 years, and tells us that working conditions have deteriorated since it came under new management a couple of years ago. This is also the only hotel along this stretch of sand that does not pay its staff – all staff in the other hotels are paid. That it is possible for only one establishment to treat its staff this way is unfathomable – this glaring exception is swept tidily under the carpet. Our fellow guests are none the wiser that the smiling faces greeting them throughout the day are concealing a daily struggle with which they will never be acquainted. It is difficult even to imagine working for the wage these workers are denied, let alone for nothing at all.

Whiskers blames the corruption that is rife across Kenya. He says corruption has become an unquestioned part of Kenyan business. I wish I had some piece of wisdom from my time studying developing countries and corruption, but I would feel like a hypocrite even if I tried to comment. How can I fumble for something as abstract as theory when real people are unable to provide for their real children? I am a white face in a hotel full of white faces, being served by (and therefore profiting from) Kenyans who are unpaid because of a lack of transparency and representation. So for now, I slip money on the sly when I am meant to be signing receipts – a token (though risky) rebellion and a small amount of money into empty pockets – and I hope that a career in international development will not be a waste of time. It is frustrating for me to sit here typing this as I cannot offer even light relief, but with no option of union or other collective action, these workers are trapped until tangible employment laws come into force. Such an indulgence it is for me to be able to blog about the harsh realities of others.

1 Comment so far
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FFS you’re on holiday! Don’t be SOAS on holiday!

Comment by kwejcblwecgu

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