Established in 1887, Raffles Hotel is often known as the ‘grand old lady of Singapore’.
Located on Beach Road, the hotel is a sight to behold amongst the skyscrapers that surround it, thanks to its beautiful colonial-era architecture.
Gazetted as a national monument in 1987, a hundred years after its opening, the hotel is often a ‘must see’ for tourists in Singapore.
While not many get a chance to spend a night in its quarters, those who have wandered around its open areas would have felt like they’ve been transported back to a time when life was less hectic and more serene.
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And that’s no surprise, given the rich history that every piece of furniture possesses.
But the hotel is not immune to wear and tear either, and in 1989, closed for a two year long restoration which cost S$160 million. Reopened in September 1991, the hotel was restored to its glory and all guest rooms were converted to luxurious suites.
This year, the hotel celebrates its 130th anniversary – but the celebration is also bittersweet.
By the end of 2017, the hotel will be fully shuttered so that another round of restoration works can be carried out. The hotel would then be reopened during the second half of 2018.
At this moment, the first phase is already underway.
But the announcement also begs a pressing question – what happens to the approximately 350 full-time employees who are part of the Raffles Hotel machinery and what will become of them while restoration works are on-going?
We find out more about Raffles Hotel’s unique approach to the situation by speaking to 3 long-time employees of the hotel, and the Director of the Talent and Culture department.
“I Need To Start Looking For A New Job”
In a room that I can safely say is the grandest of all venues that I’ve conducted interviews in, there was one thing that struck me even more than how beautiful my surroundings were – the love that the employees have for the hotel.
All long-time employees with experience ranging from 13 to 25 years, the trio reminisced about their most memorable encounters with famous guests (Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor), appreciative patrons, and world-class events.
They’ve all also been successfully seconded to various AccorHotels properties – Toihimah Bte Mohd Amin (Assistant Housekeeper) and Lam Yui Sim (Commis 1) to Swissotel Merchant Court, and Joey Chea (Senior Captain) to Sofitel Singapore Sentosa Resort and Spa.
But that’s not to say that they weren’t wrought with uncertainty initially.
‘Secondment’ isn’t a very well-known term among Singaporean workers, many (myself included) assuming that a large shift in operations as such only means a huge loss for employees – most of whom will lose their jobs.
Yui Sim admitted that as much as she trusted that the Talent and Culture department would make the necessary arrangements for them, “A lot of questions came to my mind – like, Oh, I will miss my friends., I will miss this hotel., I think I need to start looking for another job, may be a cashier job.”
Toihimah revealed that she was “prepared for the restoration” as she knew that the hotel was due for one. She mentally braced herself to lose her job – especially due to the lack of open positions at other hotels for her.
“I told myself that whatever comes, just take it. No doubt that I’m not young, and it’s not easy to get a job, but I believe that if I work hard, I will definitely find something.”
As a Branch Union Secretary in the Food Drinks & Allied Workers Union (FDAWU), Joey is the bridge between the management and her colleagues. After the restoration announcement to colleagues, she worked closely with the Talent and Culture team during the communication process and spoke personally to a number of her union members one-to-one.
She did her best to suss out how her colleagues were feeling and allay any fears they had. She revealed that it was initially challenging to convince some colleagues, especially mature ones, that proper arrangements were being made for them.
“I was in direct contact with the Talent and Culture team, and I knew that they were making arrangements for our colleagues, and assigning them to other hotels. Of course, there were some, especially the older ones, who felt that “Aiyah, nobody will want me.” But I told them not to worry, and that the team was doing a lot of things for us.”
Even more challenging was getting them to change their mindsets to embrace the disruption.
“I said, the world is changing, we need to change along with it, or else you’ll be stuck.”
To aid in secondment, the Talent and Culture team conducted an internal job fair, prepped colleagues with updated CVs and interview skills, and never stopped reaching out to sister hotels to find new spaces for them.
For Toihimah, Director of Talent and Culture Jennifer Tan even went to non-Accor hotels to enquire on spaces for her – before eventually clinching for her a position at sister property, Swissotel Merchant Court.
Similarly for Yui Sim, whose job offer only came a day before the end of the first phase.
“Initially when there was no opportunity for me yet, I told myself, I need to accept it. Then Talent and Culture contacted and told me that I got a secondment opportunity! Ms Tan told me that I will be working in a different kitchen, i.e. full cold production work instead of just cold production for breakfast operation, and I told her, It’s ok, I can learn. I am willing to learn because we need to change ourselves to adapt to our environment.”
“I really want to keep myself moving, I want to work.”
What Do They Miss At Raffles?
With an average of 17 years of experience at Raffles, missing their old workplace is something the three admit readily to – revealing that they often return to see their colleagues and participate in colleague activities.
Yui Sim, for example, has returned at least 8 times since being seconded in February!
“I miss our colleague entrance. At my seconded property, I walk a lot at work! But it’s ok, I have slimmed down and everyone is praising me! I also miss our colleague dining room, the food, my colleagues…in fact, I miss everything here!”
For Joey, Raffles Hotel is not just her workplace – it’s her second home.
“I miss knowing everything about this place…I know how to find everything. I know how to look for people easily too.”
“I miss my colleagues from our engineering department! We have worked together for so long hand in hand…so we get things done seamlessly,” reminisces Toihimah.
“There Was A Small Number Of Colleagues Who Wished For The Retrenchment Payout”
HR is often an easily overlooked function, but the case isn’t true at Raffles Hotel.
In fact, members of their Talent and Culture team are the unsung heroes in this entire operation, working alongside the Food Drinks & Allied Workers Union (FDAWU) as well as the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) to ensure each and every one of their colleagues were aware of the situation and their options.
Even before the news was communicated through the mass-sharing with colleagues, Talent and Culture made sure that FDAWU was aware of how they would be communicating to the colleagues and was on the same page on how to go about helping them individually.
This shows how much Raffles Hotel values union ties, and the good working relationship between them is one to be emulated.
“We didn’t usher our colleagues to a room to tell them what’s going to happen as it’s impersonal that way. Instead we did one-to-one sessions, which took time, but it was very important that the conversations were done by the respective ExCo with a senior member of our Talent and Culture team because our people are very important to us. Each conversation has to be done with care.”
Through the one-to-one sessions, Jennifer realised that while the majority of employees wanted to be seconded, there was a small number of colleagues who wished for the retrenchment payout.
“We went beyond legislation, as well as our collective agreement which covers only unionised positions. We wanted to treat everyone alike.”
While the collective agreement defined that only those with more than 2 years’ service get a payout (one month’s pay for each year of continuous service, capped at 25 years), those who did not meet the criteria got a payout too.
Those who stayed until the end of their phase also received an additional 2 weeks’ pay – regardless of whether they have been seconded or retrenched.
For colleagues like Toihimah and Yui Sim, both of whom wanted to be seconded, the team then got to work – helping them with their (mostly outdated) resumés, and equipping them with relevant interview skills.
Albeit being seconded to other hotels, the employees remain on Raffles Hotel’s letter of appointment, and are invited to hotel-wide events just like all colleagues.
A small number of the employees had to be let go due to the lack of opportunities for their positions.
However, the Talent and Culture team still did not stop trying to help these colleagues.
Raffles Hotel invited e2i to customise a workshop for these colleagues. Colleagues were exposed to a 2-day workshop at e2i to further equip them for their job hunt through one-on-one coaching, resume writing, etc.
“For these colleagues, we linked them with e2i, and I with my personal network within the HR community, assisted to check for possible opportunities. We never stop trying to assist to get a job for them.”
“The Success Of This Hotel Is The People”
Throughout the interviews, it was clear that a lot of consideration was taken to ensure that the transition process was made to be as smooth for the employees of Raffles Hotel as possible.
While the love that the employees have for the hotel is apparent, the love that the hotel has for its colleagues was unearthed through the interviews – something that Jennifer explained is only natural because “The success of this hotel comes from our people.”
We’d like to thank the colleagues of Raffles Hotel for their time!
The Labour Movement wants you to know that having good ties with the union is beneficial for both the companies and their colleagues, especially in times like these.