The owners of a Vancouver-area hotel raked in millions from government programs while workers have been on the picket line for over two years, resulting in Canada’s longest ongoing strike.
Since March 2020, over 140 workers at the Pacific Gateway Hotel — recently rebranded as a Radisson Blu — have been laid off, only to be subsequently fired. The firings disproportionately impacted racialized women, some of whom worked at the hotel for decades.
Kevin Wu had been working at the Richmond, British Columbia hotel as a night auditor since 2011. At a rally in December 2022 to mark the workers’ second Christmas on strike, Wu described how difficult it has been for many of his coworkers to make ends meet since March 2020.
“They have a family to raise, they have to put food on the table, they have to pay the rent or their mortgage — it has been tough for everyone,” said Wu.
But Wu said that he and his coworkers refuse to back down.
“We know if we give up right now, all the things we’ve done for the past nineteen months will be just for nothing,” said Wu. “So we’re going to keep on fighting till we get a good result for us and we can bring everyone back.”
Recall Rights Refused
Just weeks after workers were told that there was no work for them at the hotel in March 2020, the hotel owners notified workers through an internal company app that the hotel would be used as a quarantine site managed by a federal government agency and staffed by the Red Cross.
The quarantine facility contract with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) was extended on a month-to-month basis. While the workers were initially covered by their recall rights — essentially a guarantee that laid-off workers would be offered their old jobs should they become available again within a certain time frame — the contract extensions outlasted those rights.
In December 2020, the hotel owners refused to extend the workers’ recall rate, and the workers’ union, UNITE HERE Local 40, sounded the alarm.
Not all hotels responded to the tumult of the pandemic in the way the Pacific Gateway did. Other hotels in British Columbia that hosted quarantine facilities rehired and retrained their workforces to staff the facilities rather than bringing in contractors. In September 2021, UNITE HERE Local 40 and the bargaining agent for over thirty hotels and resorts in British Columbia reached a recall agreement. This agreement guaranteed that laid-off workers would be recalled until either July 1, 2023, or until the pandemic was declared over by the World Health Organization.
In early May 2021, the remaining workforce at the Pacific Gateway went on strike in solidarity with their laid-off coworkers. Over two years later, they’re still on the picket line. Over the twenty-one months that the hotel was used as a quarantine site, the hotel owners are estimated to have made around $33.6 million dollars from the PHAC contract.
Michelle Travis, research director for UNITE HERE Local 40, said that the union estimated that amount based on what’s been revealed about other quarantine hotel contracts: documents released by Calgary, Alberta Conservative Party MP Michelle Rempel-Garner revealed that the Westin Calgary hotel was contracted at a rate of $120 per room per night. Both the Pacific Gateway Hotel and the Westin Calgary are owned by PHI Hotel Group.
On the picket line in the fall of 2021, workers said that they suspected that there weren’t many people staying at the Pacific Gateway: they traded stories of driving by the hotel in the evening and not seeing any lights on. Those suspicions were validated by documents acquired by Vancouver-Kingsway New Democratic Party MP Don Davies. In September and October 2021, the Pacific Gateway saw a total of only fifteen people quarantined. Over the twenty-one-month contract, 2,204 travelers quarantined at the hotel.
In late January 2022, members of parliament contacted the union to inform it that the contract between the owners of the Pacific Gateway and the PHAC was nearing its end.
In a statement to Richmond News, a PHAC spokesperson said that the agency was “no longer doing business with Pacific Gateway Hotel” and that the hotel’s actions “were concerning,” in reference to its “treatment of unionized workers.”
On February 1, the hotel posted job ads online looking to replace laid-off workers.
Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy
In the first months of the pandemic, the Canadian government rolled out several benefit programs to support workers and businesses impacted by the pandemic. By far the largest of these benefits was the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), which provided a 75 percent wage subsidy for eligible employers for up to three months. According to a report by the auditor general of Canada, by the program’s close in October 2021, the CEWS provided more than $100 billion to over 440,000 employers, making it the largest government spending initiative in Canadian history.
An archived page on the government of Canada website states that the CEWS “prevents further job losses, encourages employers to re-hire workers previously laid off as a result of COVID-19, and help [sic] better position Canadian companies and other employers to more easily resume normal operations following the crisis.”
Despite laying off 70 percent of the Pacific Gateway’s workforce, both PHI Hotel Group and Van-Air Holdings Ltd., two entities with ownership stake in the hotel, received money from the CEWS, according to the searchable CEWS registry. In a report on pandemic support programs, the auditor general noted that while the CEWS supported employers in sectors hit hardest by the pandemic’s economic downtown, it was ultimately difficult to assess how effective the program was because of the “limited information” employers were required to submit when applying. As the report notes, “the program did not require employers to submit any information on rehiring.”
The report identified $15.5 billion in CEWS payments that should be investigated further. In January 2023, the head of the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) told members of Parliament that it “wouldn’t be worth the effort” to fully review the flagged ineligible payments. An investigation by the Globe and Mail found many CEWS recipients “posted solid results, paid out higher dividends, had money to spare for acquisitions and laid off workers to contain costs.”
Meanwhile, the CRA has contacted over one million Canadians requiring them to repay payments received through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which provided Canadians who lost work due to the pandemic with $2,000 per month.
For workers like Wu, hearing about the money that went into the hotel owners’ hands during the pandemic — while he and his fellow workers have been out on the picket line — is frustrating. “We all know that the owner benefited from the federal government during the pandemic,” said Wu. “At least give us a fair contract, right?”
Concessionary Contracts and Boycotts
Last time the owners of the hotel and UNITE HERE were at the bargaining table was in February 2021. Travis said that the owners tabled a “deeply concessionary contract” that proposed decreases in pay, fewer benefits, and worse working conditions.
“The employer wanted to roll back some of the workers’ pay from a living wage to minimum wage,” said Travis. “Under the contract, housepersons were making $21.73/hour, so that would have meant a $6.53 reduction in hourly pay under the owner’s proposal.”
Sukhi Rai, owner of Jayen Properties, of which PHI Hotel Group is an affiliate, told the Tyee that the layoffs were a result of plans to phase out food and beverage services at the hotel. But according to Travis, the layoffs were not limited just to workers in food and beverage services.
“He terminated 90 percent of the housekeeping department, and there were other departments that were hard hit. It’s not just food and beverage,” said Travis. “It really cut across departments.”
“You can’t run a four-hundred-room hotel without any housekeeping staff.”
Earlier this year, the hotel rebranded as a Radisson Blu. Since reopening the hotel to the public, the Radisson Blu has been undergoing renovations, and is currently operating with fewer rooms available to the public.
UNITE HERE Local 40 is encouraging the public to boycott the hotel. The British Columbia Federation of Labour, the Canadian Labour Congress, and Richmond City Council have all committed to not doing business with the hotel until a resolution is reached with the workers.
For workers like Wu, the support from members of other unions is heartening. “They all really support us in this fight,” he says.
On May 25, at the two-year strike anniversary rally in front of the Radisson Blu, UNITE HERE Local 40 president Zailda Chan spoke on the picket line about the resilience of the hotel workers. “No matter what you call this hotel, it’s the workers that have made this hotel successful and they’re not going anywhere until they get back in there and they raise their standards.”