ATHENS – The tourists are back in Greece during the COVID-19 pandemic after health measures were eased to lure them, but the workers who serve them aren’t, jobs going begging in the industry.
With reports there are some 55,000 vacancies among cooks, chefs, waiters, and cleaners and other help, the tourism businesses can’t find people to fill positions because of low pay, poor working and housing conditions and previous workers shunning seasonal jobs for full-time work.
It’s so bad that Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis advised restaurants, bars, hotels, tavernas and other businesses dependent on tourism and trying to recover from two years of shutdowns and slow downs to pay them more.
In a feature, POLITICO reported that Greece is struggling to find enough tourism workers, with the industry even asking the government to exempt teachers and pensioners from laws barring them from taking positions, and offering jobs to Ukrainian refugees from Russia’s invasion.
Tourism is Greece’s biggest revenue engine and brings in as much as 18-20 percent of the annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 194.52 billion euros ($200.3 billion) and at its height during record breaking years that ended in 2019 – COVID hit in 2020 – employed nearly a million people.
In 2019 there were some 33 million visitors, three times the country’s population and they brought in more than 18 billion euros ($18.54 billion) and with signs showing they are spending big this year too, raising hopes.
Tourism Minister Vassilis said 2019 “was cloudless, a year without problems,” the specter of COVID on the horizon, the deadly virus unknown yet and Greece welcoming another bumper crop of visitors.
“This year we still have a pandemic, a war in the heart of Europe after 80 years, an energy crisis, inflation, high prices as a result of the war … But so far, it looks like it will be a strong season,” he told the news site.
Jobs that the young would typically fill aren’t being taken even though Greece had the highest youth unemployment rate in Europe at 36.8 percent in April and the second highest total unemployment rate at 12.7 percent (after Spain), according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency.
“The problem was already evident in 2019, when we had record numbers of arrivals, but this year it has vastly deteriorated,” said Grigoris Tasios, President of the Greek Federation of Hoteliers and owner of a hotel in Halkidiki in northern Greece.
Two years of the pandemic and lockdowns meant many foreigners working in the Greek tourism sector left the country and never returned and with more Greeks looking for stable jobs the tourism industry is less attractive.
“This is a real problem for all European countries,” said Kikilias. “Because of the pandemic, a number of workers in the tourism sector, as the hotels shut down, looked for work in other sectors to make a living.”
The news site reported on the case of a 45-year-old woman who didn’t want to give her ful name and who began working in tourism in 1999, with the last few years spent at a hotel in Kyllini, in the Peloponnese, but this summer she decided to quit.
“They basically forced me to quit, since they asked me to work four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon, meaning I would have to go back and forth 40 kilometers (24.85 miles) twice a day,” she said.
SHOW THEM THE MONEY
With gas near the equivalent of $10 a gallon, that was a losing proposition, especially given the low pay for workers, some of whom said they sleep in their cars instead of unfit rooms offered them.
“Now when the students come in for their first job, they make them work 12-14 hours, they take their tips, they give them rotten food and make them work in miserable conditions, what incentive do they have to work?” she said.
Speaking at the annual general meeting of the Greek Tourism Confederation (SETE) Mitsotakis said staff shortages in the industry were becoming “threatening” and called on employers to raise salaries and improve working conditions but he apparently was ignored.
Tourism “requires investments in human resources too, as it has to be attractive not only to visitors but also to those working in the sector; which points to better salaries and working terms,” Mitsotakis said.
SETE President Yiannis Retsos said that, “We firstly want to separate the wheat from the chaff; the professional who pays taxes, who provides jobs and growth, from the one who sees tourism as an easy source of enrichment.”
Giorgos Hotzoglou, President of the Panhellenic Federation of Catering and Tourist Industry Employees, said the situation will get worse during the summer season, as those who remain in the tourism sector are forced to work even longer hours because of the shortage of labor, the report added.
“There is a constant movement with departures, resignations and transfers from one business to the other,” he said. “Some of those who started working in May have already quit. In the first 10 days of June, some 5,000 tourism and hospitality workers have resigned, on top of the more than 50,000 that were already missing.”
“It seems that hoteliers and employers in tourism are not interested in quality but in quantity,” said Hotzoglou. “They don’t care if the cook knows how to cook, if the receptionist speaks foreign languages, if they have had any kind of training.”
Tasios said the criticism was wrong and said the problem is that the young don’t want to work in tourism anymore.
“The majority of the employees in the hotel industry offer well-paid jobs. The hoteliers are the only ones who have a collective agreement,” he said.
The Labor Ministry approved a collective labor agreement for those working in the food industry, which sets fixed terms of employment and pay for some 400,000 employees in bars and restaurants.
Kikilias said that most tourism businesses take good care of their workers, disputing criticisms and pay them enough – at odds with Mitsotakis – and said they are being monitored although tourists are being gouged on islands like Mykonos.
“We respect and honor all those who do their job very well and we will make examples out of the few who try to discredit the tourism product,” the minister said.
“I appeal to the businesspeople of the tourism sector,” said Kikilias. “Since tourism workers are the ambassadors of our country abroad, I ask them to offer quality and well-paid jobs. The surplus from the tourism profits and the success of the Greek tourism must be shared with all the employees in the sector.”