Should Travellers Be Working for Free in Guesthouses and Bars?

“Are you looking for workers?” asked a weary looking couple at a guesthouse/restaurant in Koh Rong, Cambodia. “Not at the moment” was the reply from the offbeat Italian owner, and on they went. I heard this conversation twice in the 5 nights I spent there. I wanted to get to the bottom of why she was turning down free labour, as everyone else on Koh Rong seemed to be lapping it up; in pretty much every bar and guesthouse I saw travellers happily plying their trade.

She took pride in the local Khmer workers she had, and although you could see her frustration when they did something wrong or didn’t understand an instruction – the act of teaching them, of giving them skills that will enrich not only their own lives but those of their families, and maybe even the whole village, meant a lot to her. She taught the girls to cook proper Italian pasta, to speak better English and the general ins and outs of the guesthouse business.

Could she have gotten better service, better pasta and better English out of a traveller who was willing to work for free (with accommodation/food for payment)? Yes, probably. Would this translate to a better experience for her guests? Possibly. Some would prefer it, but I (and I’m sure a lot of others) like to see local people working in these kinds of places. It wasn’t just a one way street either, I’m sure they gave her plenty of tips on the local language, cuisine and the way the village operates.

In the end, she did it because the local people need these jobs far more than travellers do. The more I thought about it, the more seeing travellers working for free in bars and guesthouses in Southeast Asia started to annoy me.

I do admit though, after travelling for a long time, sometimes it is nice to arrive at a guesthouse and have someone from England, America or New Zealand greet you in a way only someone from your culture can. It’s that understanding of how you might be feeling, because they have felt that as well. It’s the understanding of the level of service you’ve come to expect in your home land, a level of service that sometimes isn’t a priority in other parts of the world.

There is also the issue of the local population, and whether they have the right skills, attitude and desire to do these jobs well. The level of service between cultures often varies wildly, so catering to your target market is obviously important for a business owner.  Instead of training locals to do this, I guess the easier option is to get the finished article for free, no training required.

guesthouses in Jogjakarta

I can sort of understand hiring travellers from a local business point of view , as they are keen to cater for tourists but might not know how to. It is much easier for them to hire some foreigners as front men to give the people what they want. I have a harder time understanding foreign owned guesthouses and bars hiring foreign staff, when they are in such a great position to train up the locals and to help out the community in a positive way, which is surely a small price to pay for being allowed to do business in that country – and something you’d think they would actually want to do.

My dream for the next few years is to do a lot of travel and then maybe open up a guesthouse somewhere in Asia, probably in the Philippines. I’ve given this issue a lot of thought, and while it might be easier to hire travellers, I’d want to make a difference to the community, not just to my own bank balance. If there are local people willing to work hard and learn, then I’m sure I’d hire them, and if there aren’t , I guess I’d try and look into why that is and help fix it. In a country like the Philippines, which still has a lot of poverty, it shouldn’t be impossible to find good, trustworthy and committed local staff, it will just be harder than hiring a traveller who already has all the skills.

If the owner of the guesthouse in Koh Rong had hired travellers, 2 girls’ lives would be far different than they are today. While it’s not going to change the world, I think what she is doing is great for the local community, a community that travellers invade on mass every tourist season. (OK, not really on mass as Koh Rong is pretty quiet, but tourists still seem to outnumber locals.)

A guesthouse on Koh Rong, Cambodia

What do you think about travellers working for free in guesthouses and bars? If you owned one, what would you do? Leave a comment!

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.
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  1. April 16, 2014 at 7:31 am — Reply

    I’ve never really thought about it in this context. I definitely think the local economy needs to take precedence, personally. Having travellers take jobs away from local workers can’t be a good thing in the long run.

    • April 16, 2014 at 7:59 pm — Reply

      Yeah it’s a tough one, I really don’t think you can blame local businesses for doing it, but there should be a better way.

  2. April 16, 2014 at 3:36 pm — Reply

    Excellent post and a lot of food for thought there. I think there is so much to be said for making the local communities part of the travel industry, however I think there is also a balance to be struck because sometimes small communities can be overrun by the tourism industry and that often isn’t a good thing either. It’s certainly an interesting debate.

    • April 16, 2014 at 8:01 pm — Reply

      It’s a good point about places being overrun by tourism, but I guess if the local communities got involved in a positive way then they’d be able to put their spin on the service etc and make their town unique.

  3. April 16, 2014 at 5:19 pm — Reply

    I don’t mind travelers working for free. I think of it as some sort of a social network, where people help each other out and benefit mutually.

    • April 16, 2014 at 8:04 pm — Reply

      It definitely has benefits for the travellers/ businesses, not sure about the communities though.

  4. April 18, 2014 at 2:45 am — Reply

    Nice post, Jon! I’ve been doing this for 10 months now in South America and so far, this is the best experience I’ve ever had. I learned how the locals speak, eat and live during my stay here and I believe everyone has the same dream.

    • April 18, 2014 at 9:06 pm — Reply

      Thanks Trisha! It definitely has an upside for travellers, there probably isn’t a better way to really get to know a place than to work there for a while.

  5. April 19, 2014 at 6:58 am — Reply

    Hey Jon, great perspective. It’s amazing how hard it is in some of these third world countries for people to find work, and travellers taking these low skill jobs for the sake of a free bed probably does more harm than they realise. When you open your place in The Philippines I hope you’ll employ as many local staff as possible – they work extremely hard there!

    • April 19, 2014 at 10:29 pm — Reply

      Cheers Bren!That’s the plan, it’s all a bit of a dream at the moment though!

  6. April 19, 2014 at 11:57 am — Reply

    From a traveller’s perspective, when a host/employer (especially an expat) doesn’t extend themselves to include you in their lives to provide a cultural exchange, and treats you like a worker, then the whole experience is suddenly quantifiable… After all, does 5+ hours of work equal 1 night of room and board, especially in a low-cost country? How much is my (English-speaking, foreign-trained) labour worth? What do I get out of this exchange if I continue to stay? These are some pragmatic questions I think about when I consider whether or not to ‘work for free’ again… There’s no doubt that ‘working for free’ does skew local, international and personal sense of labour economics…

    • April 19, 2014 at 10:31 pm — Reply

      I guess it’s just a way for people with no money to extend their travels, I’ve met some people working in in Southeast Asia that have been there for a long time, I guess it’s not a bad lifestyle, not one to get rich from though!

  7. April 22, 2014 at 1:44 pm — Reply

    We have talked about opening a guesthouse in the Philippines many times too. It’s still not out of the question, just not right now.

    • April 23, 2014 at 10:39 pm — Reply

      Nice, let me know when you decide, I’ll probably be there!

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