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ATHENS — Greece is struggling to find enough people to work in its vital tourism industry — and has even asked Ukrainian refugees to help.
Coronavirus meant two largely lost seasons for the tourism sector, but this year bookings are skyrocketing — officials hope to reach or even exceed the numbers from 2019, when the country made over €18 billion thanks to holidaymakers.
“2019 was cloudless, a year without problems,” said Tourism Minister Vassilis Kikilias. “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.”
Greece’s tourism industry accounts for more than a fifth of its entire economic output and provides employment for about a quarter of the workforce, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. But the owners of hotels, bars and restaurants are finding it hard to recruit enough workers to cope with demand.
Of the 250,000 jobs required in Greek hotels, more than 50,000 remain vacant, according to Greek Tourism Confederation estimates. That’s despite Greece having 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 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. Greeks have also looked for jobs in other sectors as seasonal contracts became even shorter, aggravating long-existing grievances about working hours and low payments. Many have left for other countries that offer better wages, including Cyprus and Spain.
“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.”
“But this is not the only reason,” he added.
No longer worth it
M, a 45-year-old who didn’t want to give her full name, began working in the tourism industry 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 40km twice a day,” she said, arguing that with fuel prices currently around €2.50 per liter she would hardly make any money.
“Maybe I would if they wouldn’t take my tips. Hotel management doesn’t have any authority to take tips from employees.”
The holiday season is now much shorter and you cannot make it through winter with the money you get in the summer, M said.
“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?”
Speaking at the annual general meeting of the Greek Tourism Confederation (SETE) on Wednesday, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said staff shortages in the industry were becoming “threatening” and called on employers to raise salaries and improve working conditions.
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.
“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,” said SETE President Yiannis Retsos.
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.
“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.”
The problem is more acute in seasonal restaurants and beach bars, whose hours are exhausting and don’t offer days off, he said.
“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 doesn’t accept this criticism and said many young people simply no longer want to work in the tourism sector.
“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 on Wednesday approved a collective labor agreement for those working in the food industry, which foresees fixed terms of employment and pay for some 400,000 employees in bars and restaurants.
Calling on refugees
Kikilias, the tourism minister, said the government is looking at ways to deal with the problem. He said that the vast majority of those in the industry take care of their workers, and provide them with quality jobs and a decent living. For those few who fall short of those standards, he said Greek authorities have been asked to make regular inspections and issue fines.
“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.
But according to Hotzoglou, inspections are rare, as the Greek Labor Inspectorate is understaffed. In Rethymno, on the island of Crete, there is only one inspector and there are only two on Rhodes, he said.
One solution from the government was to issue thousands of work permits to refugees from Ukraine fleeing Russia’s invasion. Although figures are not yet available, officials say the move did not help much, at least during this summer season.
Neighboring Cyprus,, where some 6,000 tourism jobs need filling, has already tried the same tactic, but without impressive results as most of the refugees who have arrived from war-torn Ukraine are women travelling alone with children or elderly people.
“After a lot of consultation with the state we managed to get some 800 permits to bring in foreign labor from third countries, so that we can fill this gap, which will directly affect the quality of the services offered,” said Filokypros Rousounidis, head of the Cypriot federation of hoteliers.
He said the Cypriot authorities want to offer these permits sparingly, so locals aren’t excluded.
“Hopefully we will be able to get into the process of renewing them easily, because it’s a problem that won’t be solved any time soon.”
Tasios says that Greece will probably follow the same model, starting from next holiday season, and will get employees from non-EU countries or from migrant camps, where some 30,000 people currently live who have social security and VAT numbers.
“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.”