Jason Craig (not his real name) was an enthusiastic 19-year-old when he joined Coco Reef Resort & Spa, Crown Point, Tobago, in an entry level position in 2010.
Fresh from high school, Craig was eager to work but had not settled on any particular career.
That was until he got a job at Coco Reef, one of the island’s leading resorts.
Determined to make a name for himself, Craig, 29, said he quickly grew to love the hospitality industry and, within the space of ten years, moved from houseman to a managerial position.
“I liked interacting with people from different cultures and exposing them to our culture. I would not have lasted ten years there if I didn’t,” he said of his job.
So, when the Government announced the national lockdown on non-essential activity in March for three months to prevent the spread of covid19, Craig said he was shocked.
He was among hundreds of hospitality workers, who were sent home after being deemed as non-essential.
“I never believed I would see the day when Coco Reef don’t even have customers,” Craig said in an interview.
“But it was also a wake-up call for tourism in Tobago for one of the big hotels to actually close its doors.”
In August, six months after the national lockdown, Craig was among 120 Coco Reef employees who received temporary termination letters from the company.
They were told to return home until October.
At a protest outside the resort’s main entrance, on August 3, the workers had complained they received no formal explanation from the company’s management. They regarded the action as disrespectful.
Coco Reef, in response, said the action was necessary given the huge financial losses the company incurred because of the virus.
The company said it was “working extremely hard” to overcome the challenges triggered by the pandemic.
Craig said the workers are yet to receive official word about their future with the company.
No relief grant
He said apart from being unemployed, he still has not been able to access any of the relief grants the Government offered for displaced workers.
“I applied for everything, from rental assistance, salary relief and up to now I haven’t received anything.”
Craig said he also learnt the hotel gave out 50 food cards to some of the displaced workers about two weeks ago.
“But it is my understanding that no one who was involved in the protest received any food cards.”
Craig, who is originally from a small fishing village in the Tobago West constituency, said he has lived in a Bon Accord apartment for the past five years.
He revealed he has not paid his $3,000 monthly rent in six months.
“But, luckily for me, my landlord is understanding. But I have to pay the man the rent somehow.”
Saying it is difficult to remain upbeat, Craig said he survives with the help of family and close friends.
Some of his co-workers, he said, have not been as fortunate.
“I am good compared to them. Two of them have literally been put out of their apartment because they can’t afford the rent and are literally on the streets begging.”
Time to migrate?
With the borders still closed to the international market and given the growing number of new covid19 infections, Craig does not believe he will get a job anytime soon.
In fact, he said migrating may be his only option.
“You have to do what you have to do to survive. I love my country but I can’t survive here anymore.”
Craig does not believe Tobago’s tourism sector will recover anytime some.
He said tourism was dead long before covid19.
“We buried her last year. Even domestic tourism was non-existent. It was really, really bad.”
He attributed the decline, in part, to “deficiencies” on the air- and seabridge as well as poor marketing.
Despite the Tobago Beyond campaign winning the Silver Award for Best National Tourism Board Campaign at the International Travel and Tourism Awards presented by World Travel Market in London, November 2019, Craig remains pessimistic.
He said, “A lot of internationals don’t even know where Tobago is. Trinidad is always on the front burner but some of them don’t even know that Tobago exists.
“Is not just one thing but a build up of issues that contributed to the death of tourism.”
One of Craig’s co-workers, Stephanie James (not her real name), has also been without a job for the past six months.
The Crown Point resident, 40, said she worked as a chef for more than two decades.
“I enjoyed working there. It was good,” she said of the experience.
“When I started I did not know much but I have learnt a lot.”
Unlike Craig, James said she got two salary relief grants since the lockdown was announced in March.
“I got the first one in May and the other one was in August. I haven’t gotten the third one yet.”
Managing household without money
She said her husband, who works for a meagre salary as a security officer, now has to foot most of the family’s expenses.
James has two young children, ages eight and 11. She said while she is grateful for the grant, she sometimes finds it difficult to make ends meet.
“You find yourself buying a lot of groceries because the kids are at home and they are eating a lot. Sometimes you have to go back and get stuff to make sure the thing last.”
The soft-spoken James said being unemployed has made her more frugal about her spending.
“I am accustomed to going and getting the stuff I need and now I can’t really do that. It change up everything. You have to monitor what you buy because you go to the grocery and you don’t want your (bill) to go over.
“We have to be content with what you get and eat little and live long.”
James revealed she also had to stop payments on her loan, which is due to be completed in 2024.
“It is really an embarrassing situation because the bank keeps calling me and I have already been given several extensions.”
She also had to drop out of a sou sou because she could not make the payments.
James said job-hunting has been tedious.
“Nobody not really hiring and the way how things looking, if they ever open back the borders, we don’t know when, I may have to look for something else to do.
“I don’t know what I will get but in the meantime, I will look for something. But everybody is the same story, things hard.”