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By Kristjan Bragason, EFFAT General Secretary
(Originally published on OpenCorporation blog, 19/04/2020 – also available to read in Italian)

The spread of Coronavirus is first and foremost a health crisis, and our hearts in EFFAT go out to all those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, as well as to those battling the virus, either as patients or as doctors and other allied health professionals. This is clearly the first thing to say when reflecting on the current situation in Europe.

It does not cheapen that sentiment, however, to also point out the consequences of COVID-19 on jobs, the economy and labour relations. With all of Europe having implemented at least some form of lockdown, the consequences for the EFFAT sectors have been profound, if unequal. Worst hit, by far, is Tourism, with millions of jobs at risk, and uncertain prospects for recovery. While sustaining production in the essential Agriculture and Food sectors, insofar as possible, has been a key target of governments across Europe, travel restrictions and the enforced closure of businesses deemed non-essential – including most hotels, restaurants, cafés, bars etc. – has brought almost all tourism-related activity to a grinding halt.

State-backed wage guarantee schemes – fought for by trade unions – along with loans and grants to businesses, are an attempt by many European governments to prevent short-term supply-side shock becoming huge long-term damage to the economy, and especially to the most affected sectors such as Tourism. Contrast this with the approach in the United States – which has focused on trying to prop up demand in the economy – where over sixteen million people have lost their jobs in the last three-four weeks, the vast majority of whom will be forced to sign up for unemployment benefit.

To be able to chart more accurately the varied impact of Coronavirus on European workers, EFFAT set up in March its own dedicated COVID-19 webpage, collating information from our national affiliates on relevant governmental policy, social partner agreements, and the current state of the EFFAT sectors. This corroborated our fears for Tourism in Europe, which remains incredibly fragile, despite the best efforts of our affiliates and some welcome, but insufficient, measures by government.

Of the approximately 12,000,000 workers in European hospitality, almost all have either been furloughed, or made redundant. Virtually no-one is working as usual. Those on temporary contracts, zero-hours contracts, and bogus self-employed workers in the gig economy are among the worst-hit, as many government income support measures do not provide them with adequate cover. Numerous tourism workers have therefore been obliged to turn to unemployment benefit, which is often not enough to live on.

But our job as trade unionists is not to feel sorry for ourselves, and however sombre the picture might be, the testimony of our national affiliates has been an invaluable aide in fleshing out our advocacy work at the European level. Drawing on best practice examples from around Europe, we have formulated a series of business-targeted demands to preserve tourism jobs and the wellbeing of workers, including:

  • Apply for government support such as short-time work allowances.
  • Use periods with less activities for re- and upskilling of workers.
  • Ensure sick pay leave to all workers who need to be protected from the virus.
  • Step up health and safety measures in case hospitality establishments are used as COVID-19 quarantine or accommodation facilities.

All of these points and more have also been relayed to relevant decision-makers in the EU institutions via the European Tourism Manifesto Alliance Statement, to which EFFAT was a co-signatory, and the EFFAT-HOTREC (Social Partners in the Horeca Sector) Joint Press Release. Furthermore, EFFAT’s activities, and those of its affiliates, have fed into the global advocacy work of the IUF.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the European Tourism sector needs major support. Nurturing consumer demand in the coming months will be one thing, and given the serious risk of failure for many hospitality businesses, sustaining supply and mitigating further job losses will also be required. All this in a context of lingering uncertainty and the possibility of continued travel restrictions, further temporary lockdowns and substantial behavioural change – enforced or otherwise – at least until a vaccine is found. Not to mention the ILO predicting last week the equivalent of 195 million full-time job losses worldwide by summer 2020 – marking out ‘accommodation and food’ as among the most at-risk sectors – and the IMF forecasting a 3% contraction in the global economy, similar in scale to 1929. EFFAT is under no illusions about the scale of the challenge.

Still, if governments can minimise total job losses as much as possible, there is conceivably a fair amount of built-up demand for communal pleasures currently denied us, such as drinks and meals out with friends. There will, I believe, be opportunities for tourism to recover, but the sector must be given the support to do so, even if that means national governments extending wage guarantee schemes, business assistance and rolling out other measures to bolster supply.

More broadly, this moment provides an opportunity to reconsider the future of European tourism policy: from the base of a radical and ambitious stimulus plan for the European economy, policymakers – in concert with sector stakeholders – must drive investment into sustainable growth channels for tourism, marking out Europe as a safe, resilient destination which delivers value to local communities, visitors and tourism workers. Integration of this policy agenda into the framework of the European Green Deal will be essential, which will necessitate improved coordination between Commission Directorates-General on tourism-related matters.

Above all, we must be guided by the precautionary principle. The ETUC is right to demand that health and safety at work plays a central role in the EU Roadmap toward the gradual lifting of COVID-19 containment measures. It will be vitally important that European governments collaborate with the social partners to plot a shared long-term recovery from this crisis which upholds respect for working people’s dignity and wellbeing.


Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash