With tourists and foreign travel agents looking on, police used batons and dogs Friday outside a luxury downtown hotel to break up a demonstration of black hotel workers seeking severance pay from an American company that had canceled its contract to manage the hotel.
The authorities arrested 245 employees of the Carlton Hotel, including doormen in top hats and tails and cooks in white chef hats, after ordering the chanting throng to disperse. The police cited state-of-emergency regulations that prohibit most public gatherings.
The Carlton Hotel later paid $50 fines admitting the guilt of each of the demonstrators, who were released after a few hours in custody.
Westin Hotels Co., which had managed the hotel for 15 years, terminated its contract with the hotel’s owner, the South African conglomerate Anglo American Corp., on April 15.
Waiters, maids, porters and other employees of the hotel arriving for the morning shift Friday gathered outside the front door and refused to report for work. Many carried signs accusing Westin of exploiting them, and they said they deserve bonuses of the sort that some disinvesting firms have given their employees.
The protest apparently stemmed from a misunderstanding: The workers thought they were employed by Westin, but the Seattle-based company only provided management services to the hotel under contract, according to Larry Macartney, marketing director of the Carlton. The hotel workers were employees of Anglo American, and neither their jobs nor their working conditions would be affected by the disinvestment, he added.
For much of the day, white employees of the hotel waited on tables and made beds for guests. Among those who watched from the lobby were travel agents from around the world who had been in Johannesburg for a three-day international workshop to boost South African tourism, which has increased sharply in the past year.
“Is it safe to go outside?” one guest asked others who were milling about in the lobby during the protest outside the glass front doors.
Police have the authority under the emergency regulations and the Internal Security Act to declare illegal nearly any outdoor gathering in the country. When the police began making arrests Friday, some protesters were struck with batons and shoved into police vehicles, but most of the hotel workers walked voluntarily to the police vans.
Some workers said they were worried that Westin’s departure from the hotel’s management would affect their jobs, and others thought they deserved, in the words of one man, “a share of the profits Westin has made from us.”
No hotel staff members had been laid off as a result of Westin’s decision to cut its links with the Carlton, Macartney said. Nevertheless, he added, the workers’ demands had been forwarded to Westin’s corporate headquarters.