America TonightMon-Fri 9 ET/6 PT
David McNew/Getty Images

The real story behind the Brunei boycott

The star-backed boycott of a Brunei-owned chain of luxury California hotels didn't begin as an LGBT protest at all

It seemed to begin last month, when Ellen DeGeneres sent out this tweet.

The talk show host had vowed to boycott the Beverly Hills Hotel, one of several luxury hotels owned by the sultan of Brunei, in response to the tiny but oil-rich country's implementation of a penal code that would make adultery and gay sex punishable by death.

Celebrities like Jay Leno and Sharon Osbourne, as well as dozens of organizations, followed suit, publicly casting their opposition to the elite Dorchester Collection chain that also includes London’s Dorchester, Paris’ Hotel Plaza Athénée and the Hotel Bel-Air in California.

A bevvy of organizations scheduled to hold events at the Beverly Hills Hotel, like the Feminist Majority Foundation, which publishes Ms. Magazine, switched venues.

"How could we hold a global women's rights event at a hotel whose owner was about to impose these Taliban laws in Brunei?" executive director Kathy Spillar explained about the foundation's decision.

To date, the hotel has lost $1.5 million in cancelled bookings. And last week, the Beverly Hills City Council upped the ante, condemning Brunei's government in a 5-0 vote and urging new ownership.

For activists who want to shed light on how to fight LGBT rights violations and raise awareness, this viral campaign offers an aspirational model. But what few supporters may realize is that the real story of how it began isn't about an LGBT protest at all; it's rooted in grinding labor dispute that finally found its hook this month after more than a year.

Workers’ rights

In 2009, the Sultan of Brunei and his company shut down the Hotel Bel-Air for a multimillion-dollar renovation, laying off nearly 300 union workers. When it re-opened two years later, the hotel hired mostly new workers, ones who didn't belong to a union.

The move raised the ire of an organization called Unite Here Local 11, which represents some 20,000 hospitality workers in Los Angeles and Orange County.

"These are mostly low wage workers from hotel housekeepers to cooks to bellmen," said Leigh Shelton, a labor organizer with Unite Here. "It's customary if a hotel is going to shut down for renovations that they make an agreement with the current workers to come back to work when the hotel re-opens."

Like Pablo Contreras, many workers had been at the hotel for years. An immigrant from El Salvador with two young children, he had worked full time at Hotel Bel-Air for five years bussing tables. At the same time, he held down a part-time job at another hotel.

After being laid off, Contreras lost his apartment, unable to afford it.

"I feel like very sad, like the Hotel Bel-Air [was] using me," he explained. "Like when you threw the furniture to the trash, that's the way I was feeling."

Déjà vu

The sultan of Brunei
The sultan of Brunei
Dean Kassim/AFP/Getty Images

This isn't the first time the hotel chain has been involved in a labor dispute.

Shelton points out that the Sultan's company closed the Beverly Hills Hotel in the 1990s for renovations, laying off workers and hiring non-union employees when it re-opened.

Along with the similar actions at the Hotel Bel-Air in 2009, the company effectively busted the union at both luxury hotels, Shelton said.

"We tried to spread the word and ignite some outrage in the celebrity community,” she explained of the union's attempt more than two decades ago. "Unfortunately our message wasn't resonating with folks. The struggles of low-wage workers aren't always front-page news."

So when it happened again, the group began to dig deeper, looking for another hook.

"We quickly found that in his country where he is the absolute monarch, it is illegal to be gay," Shelton explained.

Sensing an opportunity, Unite Here sought help from an influential colleague in San Francisco: Cleve Jones.

Jones is a longtime labor organizer, but he's best known as a leader in the LGBT movement and the founder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

He also has 10,000 friends and followers on Facebook, so when Jones started posting there about Brunei's penal code, he quickly saw a response.

"Every morning I get up and see how this has spread," he said. "Boy, it's just amazing."

Thanks to social media, the union got its boycott, even if it had to wrap itself in a different cause to get results, and Jones is OK with that.

"If you want to reach the public you've got to find that phrase, those words that jump out and pull them into the story," he said.

The other workers

Pablo Contreras
Pablo Contreras
America Tonight

The campaign has been so effective that the CEO of the sultan's hotel company, Christopher Cowdray, flew in from London to handle the public relations disaster. Though he declined an interview with America Tonight, Cowdray told the Beverly Hills City Council that Brunei was being unfairly singled out.

"These laws exist in other countries around the world, where these punishments that we have spoken about this evening, are already enacted," he said. "I see no action being taken by this council in refuting those laws in those countries."

With Cowdray were more than 100 of the hotel's employees, whom he argued would be the true victims of any boycott.

"I'm here to talk to you this evening and to put an impassioned plea on behalf of the 650 employees and their families of the Beverly Hills Hotel, the 150 people who are here today. The actions you take have to be seriously considered, because they will affect the livelihoods of these people.

Contreras says he doesn't want the hotel's employees to suffer either. After all, he knows how tough the market is. He's been looking for a full-time job for nearly five years.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter