Close to 2,000 hospitality workers redeployed to essential roles honoured in online ceremony

Mr Akbar Khan Omar Khan, a butler for high-priority guests at Grand Hyatt, was redeployed as a retail assistant at a FairPrice supermarket from April to July last year. PHOTO: COURTESY OF AKBAR KHAN BIN OMAR KHAN

SINGAPORE - Mr Akbar Khan Omar Khan had been working as a butler for high-priority guests at five-star hotel Grand Hyatt for about 30 years when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

During the circuit breaker last year, his department saw few such guests arriving, so the hotel management offered Mr Akbar and his colleagues the option to be seconded to another company and work in essential roles.

These included jobs as safe distancing ambassadors, contact tracers, temperature screeners, warehouse pickers or packers, and supermarket retail assistants.

Mr Akbar, 48, accepted the offer to work as a retail assistant at a FairPrice supermarket, in charge of stocking and rearranging shelves for drinks, rice, sugar and eggs.

Some colleagues who did not want to be seconded were asked to clear their paid leave, or take an internal transfer to other departments within the hotel that needed more manpower, he said.

On Thursday (Aug 12), Mr Akbar was one of about 2,000 hotel employees honoured for taking on front-line essential roles at an online appreciation session organised by the Food, Drinks and Allied Workers Union (FDAWU).

More than 280 representatives from 34 hotels and 15 government agencies and companies attended.

Mr Akbar was also deployed as a safe management inspector with the Singapore Tourism Board from July to November last year.

He was in charge of inspecting shops in Little India.

His customer-facing experience helped him to convince shop owners to keep to safe management measures, he said.

"Sometimes, you can tell that they don't want us to come and inspect their shops. But I talked to them nicely and I told them, 'If you follow these procedures, your customers will feel safe and they will want to come and shop.' They listened and they were happy to receive us," said Mr Akbar.

He has since returned to Grand Hyatt, but has been helping out at the housekeeping department, which is short-staffed.

The FDAWU helped to facilitate the redeployment by connecting the hotels and employers, such as supermarkets.

Hotels receive payment from such employers that require the manpower. In turn, the hotels are better able to retain their employees and continue to pay salaries.

Four Seasons Hotel Singapore's director of people and culture Audrey Chin said that while the hospitality industry was badly impacted by Covid-19, the redeployment has been very helpful in financial terms.

"As a result of the redeployment opportunities, we have not laid off or retrenched any staff."

Human resources manager Kenneth Teo of DFI Retail Group, which owns stores including Cold Storage, Giant and Guardian, said the group had faced a manpower crunch during the circuit breaker period, with some 500 employees stuck in Malaysia.

It hired and redeployed about 500 hotel employees.

"The hotel workers have always been known for their service standards and they demonstrated this during their interactions with our customers during their attachment," said Mr Teo, 35.

"We were fortunate to be able to work with hotels that have deployed their F&B (food and beverage) workers to us. Their skill sets in food handling were valuable in serving our customers at our ready-to-eat counters and fresh departments."

The FDAWU said these employees had "exhibited the true spirit of hospitality by stepping forward out of their comfort zone to take on the essential worker roles".

"By doing so, they had also helped their employers save costs to keep the businesses going during the pandemic," it added.

Mr Christopher de Souza, FDAWU adviser and MP for Holland Bukit-Timah GRC, said in a speech at the appreciation ceremony on Thursday that companies had used the redeployment as a way to manage their manpower needs.

"Our workers fully empathised with the situation and selflessly agreed to be deployed temporarily to another company," he said.

"They have worked tirelessly on the ground and contributed in their own ways to society, such as ensuring adherence to safe management measures, or stocking up supermarket shelves with necessities during the panic buying period."

FDAWU general secretary Tan Hock Soon noted that the Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of flexibility and adaptability.

"The pandemic may have lasted longer than we had expected, but we have also learnt an important lesson to embrace changes and be flexible so that everyone can overcome the challenges together, in our very own Singapore spirit.

"This deployment exercise is a testament of the union's collaboration with the companies in preserving the workers' jobs."

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