Innovation in the time of a pandemic: countering unemployment in the tourism and hospitality industries

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For sale’ signs line the once busy streets of Cape Town. While some business owners were forced to close down during the pandemic, others are innovating and upskilling in preparation for what is to come. At the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town (SCCT)Employment Access and Women’s Platform had to adapt their programmes to make sure that they were able to offer support. Their clients had to do the same.  

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Tourism forms a critical chunk of the South African economy: as of June 2020, the industry generated 740 000 direct jobs and more than 1.5 million indirect jobs. The hospitality industry in South Africa leans heavily on tourism to provide it with customers. Under lockdown, people were not able to travel easily and South Africa’s tourism industry took a monumental knock. The tourism industry has suffered a loss of billions of Rands and an estimated 300,000 jobs since the start of lockdown.  

Curfews, alcohol bans and closed public spaces further contributed to many businesses closing. SCCT had to close its physical doors and move its programmes online. SCCT staff had to adapt quickly to be able to offer clients their assistance. “We were in shock and the clients were too,” explains Hylton Bergh, Employment Access manager. “We had over 300 clients a month coming to SCCT for assistance with creating a CV, applying for jobs or receiving training. In order to service them we had to move all our services and trainings online, but we also had to make sure that the clients understood what we were trying to do.” 

The feelings of shock and uncertainty were echoed by Women’s Platform. “We thought it would just be two weeks and then things would go back to normal,” says Julia Oduol, Women’s Platform Livelihood Manager. The team had to react quickly to move their services online to ensure support for the women in their network. “We have more than 800 women in our database. Women in craft and hospitality were directly affected [as they lost their jobs in the lockdown]. Women in childcare were affected because mothers would stay home and not take their children to creche.” Women working in the beauty industry were also affected as hotels and spas began to lose business.  

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David Mwambayi, an Employment Access client, started as a security guard and is now the receptionist at a hotel in Cape Town. When the national lockdown came into effect, David was fortunately not one of the employees to be retrenched, but the hotel had to make adjustments for the staff that they were still able to employ. “The adjustment was instant – they started paying us 50% of our salaries.” 

Monica Kalumba, a member of Women’s Platform, also faced difficulties when her and her husband’s restaurant was unable to operate. “We couldn’t do our job. We couldn’t sell anything. We were just indoors. We were just stuck.”  

To make matters worse, finding new employment became increasingly difficult. “When [asylum or refugee] permits expired, employers were not understanding of the fact that the Refugee Reception Offices were closed and clients could not renew their permits – people were asked to leave their jobs,” explains Hylton. “Many of our clients lack basic English and digital literacy skills. During the pandemic, these barriers was exacerbated.”  

Max Ximbi, Employment Access’ former placement officer, was on the frontline of trying to help clients find employment. “On the one side there were no jobs and on the other side they [SCCT clients] were losing support to access the opportunities that were available. Firstly, no jobs, secondly no support. It was difficult to bridge that gap … Now, we are seeing opportunities coming back but competition is much higher.” 

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When looking at how programmes were able to support clients, Julia explains that Women’s Platform gained access to a grant from UNHCR to support 40 small businesses within the Women’s Platform network. “The goal of the project was to protect the food security of business owners and their employees throughout lockdown and to protect local economies by supplying much needed capital to restart their businesses post lockdown. There was a lot of creativity and innovation when it came to the small businesses that we work with. “ 

Upskilling has become a common theme amongst Employment Access and Women’s Platform clients. “People are trying to understand career awareness and trajectory for the first time. There has been a shift around ‘the plan’,” says Prashana Rampersad, who works with Employment Access and UpLearn. Clients are looking for opportunities to improve their skills. David echoed this; “for me, it was a time to learn something new.”  

With his reduced working hours, David started studying through FUNZI – “I really loved the courses. They [the courses] have opened my mind and helped me understand things that I struggled with before.”  

The two SCCT programmes are working to assist clients who want to upskill.  A large majority of women in Women’s Platform depend on tourism for their income. This focus is now shifting to the South African market and their wants – leading to more sustainable businesses.  “There are opportunities being created between the pandemic”.  

Employment Access is offering trainings in digital literacy, professional skills and FUNZI courses. The aim is to improve clients’ employability. “We have identified where they [Employment Access clients] are lacking and we are doing something about that,” says Max. “We are trying to make people more proactive and to empower them.” 

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Armed with new knowledge, David’s confidence has grown. He acknowledges that the courses he completed during the lockdown and the assistance he got from Employment Access will help in reaching his future goals. “I would like to grow in this [hospitality] industry. Studying professional skills has had such an impact on my knowledge. One day I would like to own my own hotel.” 

Monica embraced the time spent with her two sons in the lockdown and supported her family by baking and delivering birthday cakes. Her and her husband have been able to reopen their business and are feeling positive about the future. “I can see that my business is now growing more than what I was expecting. Last year I couldn’t see any future for the business. But now I am going somewhere.” 

The Employment Access team are constantly looking for way to empower their clients. “It is up to our clients to grasp all opportunities. By doing this, we have seen many clients succeed in finding gainful employment or growing their businesses,” says Hylton. Within Women’s Platform, Julia has seen the women coming together to support one another. “Lockdown brought a lot of fear and loss, but it also brought a lot of positives that we continue to tap into.”