For catering employees, the high tourist season promises to be tricky again

2024-05-03 10:15:08

Despite the intense reactivation of tourist activity, the after-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are still being felt in the sector. At the start of the 2024 high season, health issues and quality of life at work, particularly in catering, remain predominant questions while professionals still deplore the lack of workforce. France Travail now even organizes Catering recruitment rallies.

Ma doctoral thesis in geography on the health of catering workers on the island of Majorca (largest island in the Balearic archipelago in Spain) and in the Île de Ré–La Rochelle area had set itself the objective of exploring the challenges in greater depth which this sector of activity will face during the coming summers in European tourist destinations, prey to climate change.

Based on around sixty interviews with catering workers, political and union actors and health professionals in France and Spain, it highlights certain points for vigilance: while the health risks linked to heatwaves are increasing increase, employees in the sector often have to accept a greater workload, without a collective helping to regulate the sector.

Hotter and hotter summers

The increasingly scorching summers are particularly trying for workers in the sector. At the time of the field study for this doctoral work (summer period 2022), a labor inspector told us that he had recorded a record temperature of 53 degrees in a restaurant kitchen in Majorca. 2023 has not been more favorable. In France, four heatwave episodes were recorded“significant” health impact according to Public Health France.

These high temperatures sometimes result in heat stress issues induced by sudden temperature changes. Its long-term effects are not clearly established or diagnosed, whereas in the short term they most often only result in colds or sore throats, if we are to believe the interviews carried out with several occupational physicians in Spain. As it does not cause work stoppages or accidents, it is therefore not found in health statistics. A Majorcan union official explained to us:

“Here, we are on an island with a very hot climate in summer. In the kitchen, we also operate planchas and ovens even though it is already 35 degrees. Next to it, the cook must go into the cold room, open the freezers: this causes thermal stress. The law on prevention of risks at work requires restaurateurs here to have a special coat for that, but with the pressure of the service, some wear it and others not. »

17 million tourists visited the Balearic Islands in 2023, which has a year-round population of 1.2 million.
Nicole Pankalla/Pixabay, CC BY-SA

These problems could become more and more frequent and follow the evolution of climate change depending on the rapport of the International Labor Organization, published in 2019 on the subject. Increased heat stress could lead to lost productivity equivalent to 80 million jobs worldwide. The services sector is particularly affected by risks, particularly with regard to European countries.

In France, several press articles highlight the risks of working in high heat without really paying attention to sudden temperature changes. A labor inspector interviewed on the Ile de Ré as part of our doctoral investigation also mentioned this problem of increasingly hot temperatures in the kitchen in the catering sector.

Control needs

When there is a shortage of labor, employers often have the only solution to increase the workload of the staff still in place or to opt for weekly closing days. In high tourist season, when restaurateurs are required to generate the majority of their annual turnover in a few months, it is very often the former which seems to be favored or imposed.

The workers interviewed as part of our survey are, on both sides of the Pyrenees, many in a situation of financial emergency and often rely on overtime worked in high season to survive the rest of the year. The pandemic period did not allow them to work these overtime hours and their salary was cut in half during the confinement period. France has implemented partial unemployment schemes and Spain has activated the ERTEan equivalent mechanism.

This situation has forced many employees to take out financial loans from banking establishments or informally from family or friends. Added to this are state-guaranteed loans for small restaurant owners in France. They now have to repay them.

These workers are now inclined to accept insurmountable workloads to compensate for the losses caused by the pandemic. A Mexican cook in her thirties in Majorca told us in April 2022:

“It’s like peak season started in April for me because there’s such a shortage of staff that we work a lot, very early in the season. I’m already dead but, right now, I have to make a lot of money and put it aside because I lost a lot during the Covid-19 period. »

She also indicated to prepare for increasingly intense seasons.

Count on the collective?

In this context, it seems necessary to strengthen the control systems of establishments in high season in tourist areas to ensure compliance with the number of hours worked per day in this very specific context.

However, it seems difficult to count on unions to impose these controls. Indeed, one of the biggest challenges for the catering sector on a European scale is the under-representation of unions and the total absence of collective mobilization within the workforce employed in the sector. Small businesses, particularly those in the catering industry, have never had a great collective culture of unionization. They are over-represented in the catering sector. These companies are more under-resourced in terms of occupational health systems.

The quest for better working conditions in the catering sector, to promote the good health and well-being of workers, will inevitably have to involve some form of organization and collective demand, whether union or not. The current labor shortage allows catering workers to choose their companies based on the wages and working conditions offered, but this goes beyond the legislative framework and fits into a very specific context.

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Indeed, nothing guarantees the sustainability of this dynamic favorable to employees in the sector. There branch collective agreement of the hotel and catering industry in the Balearic Islands is, for example, particularly attractive and imposes salary and working conditions that are enviable for many European countries such as France or other Spanish autonomous communities. But financial and managerial limits as well as social standards regarding behavior in small catering businesses hinder the application of this professional sector collective agreement. A waitress from the Île de Ré describes the things not to do according to her:

“In the restaurant business, if you stop working in high season you are considered a coward and a weakling. Unless I had a broken leg I wouldn’t have stopped, really. The few people I know who were arrested, behind it was the trial of the innocent. »

The workers questioned during our survey generally preferred to move towards large establishments within which the presence of a works council, a human relations department or union representation would favor, once again according to the workers surveyed , the application of this convention.

This dynamic is damaging and leads to inequalities in terms of working conditions and health risks between small and large companies in the sector. Faced with this desertion of small structures, workers in small restaurants are more likely to find themselves understaffed and therefore overworked.

Finally, note that all of the difficulties experienced by workers in the catering sector in a tourist context are not solely attributable to the working conditions offered by the company. Their health and quality of life also depend on more global determinants in their area of ​​life and work. Among these elements, we can take the example of the difficulty finding accommodation following mechanisms of land pressure which are exacerbated in tourist areas, or the seasonality of tourist activity which induces a discontinuity in employment contracts. She herself is today facing unemployment insurance reforms in France.

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