A five-star hotel in the North has apparently been told to keep some of its foreign staff away from business delegates attending a major US investment summit, it emerged today.
Newly appointed Taoiseach Brian Cowen and British prime minister Gordon Brown are among those who are travelling to Belfast for the high-profile economic conference, which begins tomorrow.
The Stormont government’s business promotion body, Invest Northern Ireland, has apparently raised concerns with the Culloden Hotel on the outskirts of Belfast that migrant workers with broken English would be serving potential investors from America.
The luxury spa and hotel resort, where guests can pay €520 a night for a suite, has a number of Eastern European staff members on its books.
Invest NI is staging a series of breakfast meetings at the hotel as part of this week’s conference programme.
It is understood its request has required a reorganisation of the shift rota at the Culloden with extra staff from the North being drafted in.
More than 100 executives from around 80 US companies are set to attend business seminars across Belfast during their two-day stay as the North tries to attract stateside investment.
When asked about Invest NI’s apparent issue with certain foreign staff, a spokesman for the Culloden, which is part of the Hastings Hotel Group, confirmed concerns had been raised.
“It is company policy not to comment on private bookings,” he said.
“However we are aware of concerns raised by INI and are working to find a positive resolution for all parties involved.
“The Culloden Estate and Spa is always happy to work with clients on improving their five star experience and appreciate feedback.”
An Invest NI spokesman denied the organisation had made any specific request about the composition of the serving staff but conceded it had raised concerns about service standards at the hotel.
“In planning for the conference Invest NI raised an issue regarding service standards with the management of the Culloden,” he said.
“Invest NI and the management have been working closely together to ensure that the highest standards of service are available to the delegates.
“At no stage has Invest NI made any specific request regarding the composition of the hotel staff.”
Patrick Yu, director of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities dismissed the suggestion that the language skills of foreign staff were not up to scratch.
“Most of these people have been working here for a long time so I don’t think their language skills are a problem,” he said.
“In order to get a job serving in a hotel you have to prove you can speak English so how can it be an issue?
“You must remember that delegates at this investment conference will not only be looking at investment opportunities, they will also be looking at the diversity of the society here.
“This sends out a bad message, particularly when this week there is also a major European conference in Belfast on integration policy in Northern Ireland.”
Chairman of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s Stormont scrutiny committee Mark Durkan condemned any move that could result in one staff member being favoured over another on the grounds of nationality.
“This is an extremely unsatisfactory state of affairs,” the Social Democratic and Labour Party leader said.
“It is not the kind of message we would be seeking to put across at this time.
“We should be trying to show potential investors that while we are open for business we are also open for employment, which is the true sign of a healthy, vibrant economy.”
Sinn Féin spokeswoman on ethnic minorities Jennifer McCann expressed concern that certain workers had been moved off serving positions.
“The decision to take ethnic minority staff from duties relating to the US Investment Conference would be deeply regrettable,” said the West Belfast Assembly member.
“It would be a step backwards. The conference must be about investing in our future and tackling inequality. This includes dealing with exclusion and discrimination in our society.
“Hopefully, the conference organisers and the Culloden Hotel will assess this situation and allow all staff to return to their normal duties.”