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Perks that keep the workers in their place

WITH ALMOST 3,000 guest rooms and more than half-a-million square feet of meeting space, the Opryland Hotel outside Nashville boasts of being the biggest hotel and convention centre in the world. So why is this highly acclaimed colossus currently renovating a second-hand motel with 300 beds a half-hour's drive up the road? And why did it appoint a manager with experience of supervising student hostels to run it?

The answer lies in the acute shortage of labour that now afflicts many of America's fastest growing regions. Quite simply, the Opryland Hotel needs to attract - and keep - qualified staff, and to do that it is resorting to an extensive range of perks, including, for 300 of its more junior staff, cheap housing. As Todd Smith of Opryland puts it, the resort-cum- conference centre aims to be the "employer of choice" in the Nashville area, and employee benefits - rather than higher pay - are the route it has chosen.

The hotel - if it can be called that - is a lavish and punctiliously maintained complex built almost 20 years ago, and steadily expanded since, preserving the principle that it should remain under one roof. The lobby of the original "Magnolia" building has the towering timber ceiling, stucco pillars and shallow double staircase characteristic of the most gracious southern mansions. The acres of interior floors are carpeted, and "outside" is a succession of vast conservatories luxuriantly planted with tropical greenery linked by a man-made river (with fish and boats), and kept at a steady 73F.

Keeping up the standards that made the Opryland Hotel one of America's top 10 convention venues - a massive and expanding US market - takes a cast of thousands: 4,600 for the hotel, including 150 gardeners, and a further 2,000 if you include the real "outside", maintaining the golf course, the showboat that plies the real river, and the Grand Ole Opry, the classic country music vaudeville house that moved out of central Nashville 25 years ago to what was then almost the country - and gave the hotel its name.

The 300 workers housed by the company are charged $7.50 (about pounds 4.70) a day, equivalent to one hour's pay, for rent and may stay only three months (there is a waiting list for places). They are predominantly workers, many from south-east Asia, Mexico and the Caribbean, who are just finding their feet in the United States.

The "housed" workers are a small minority of the total, but other perks are open to all: a nursery on the premises; one free meal per shift in the company cafeteria, plus cheap meals to take away; continuing education and training programmes that include English as a second language (which also has a waiting list), and bus transport to and from work.

In Britain, such perks might be taken for granted. In the United States, where "outsourcing" and "buying in" are the rule, they are a welcome benefit for workers, whose most urgent complaint is how little time they have for their families. The manpower shortage has given workers a chance to turn the tables, just a little, on their bosses.

Nor is Opryland unique. From across America come reports of company-owned blocks of flats, on-site clinics, subsidised child-care, and even fully- fledged schools, with after-hours activities. More and more companies sited in far-flung "business parks" are introducing on-site shops or a supermarket ordering and delivery service.

With the unemployment rate nationally running at 4.2 per cent and still falling, the labour shortage has become an increasingly conspicuous problem in many areas of the country. But it is especially acute in the Midwest and central southern states.

In Tennessee, where the April jobless rate, at 4.1 per cent, was slightly below the national average, there are variations between the prosperous suburban areas and poorer rural and inner-city districts, just as there are in other states. But so far as the Nashville area is concerned, the jobless rate for all practical purposes is, as Todd Smith puts it, "pretty much nil".

His observation is borne out in all manner of ways: in city cafes that must restrict their menus for shortage of staff, in poorly cleaned hotel rooms - "we just can't get good help" - in the stalling of house-building for lack of labourers, and in the ubiquitous "help wanted" signs in shop windows. The most vivid evidence is the number of advertisements in the free employment newspapers that promise "signing-on" bonuses of hundreds of dollars for a commitment to stay at least 90 days.

One result of the boom in perks is a revival of something akin to the "company town", but for other reasons. While enlightened 19th-century industrialists on both sides of the Atlantic provided education and housing out of a sense of paternalistic responsibility or social idealism, today's US proprietors are acting out of pure capitalist concern for the bottom line.

The irony is that in doing so, they risk replicating the model of the former communist economies, where the workplace was the provider of everything from nurseries to schools, clinics, canteens and shops - a model long denounced by Americans as clumsy and irrational.

Strangely, perhaps, the one benefit that American employers are so far resisting - except for certain highly trained specialists - is substantially higher pay. This is a cause of considerable relief to economists, who fear a return of inflation. But it is scant consolation to the lowest paid: their perks, however welcome, bind them ever more tightly to their employer - which is just what the company intended.