Hoteliers association AHETA is not delighted by the results so far of ‘summer 2018’. On Monday, it warned that package holiday tourists were shunning the Algarve and returning to (much cheaper) holidays offered by Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey. And on Tuesday they released a statement that has workers in the sector fearing the dawn of a “new form of modern-day slavery”.
On the face of it, the statement issued by AHETA (the Algarve association of hotels and touristic developments) sounds fairly straightforward – particularly as it follows seasonal gripes by hotel bosses that they “can’t fill staff vacancies”.
In the country’s best-selling tabloid on Wednesday morning, AHETA boss Elidérico Viegas followed up on the association’s case, saying in total the region lacks 3,000 workers.
What he did not explain, say critics working in the region’s ‘middle-of-the-road’ hotels, is the bottom-line terms and conditions of these so-called unfilled posts.
But first let’s get to AHETA’s statement: the association particularly representing the region’s three- and four-star segment is calling for the “need to agilise and make more flexible” legalisation of immigrants to allow “controlled importation” of foreign labour to work in the economy, in general, and in tourism of the Algarve, in particular.
The statement talks of “structural problems” like a lack of affordable housing and calls on municipal authorities “to implement active housing policies with controlled costs to motivate and attract labour from other regions of the country, but also immigrants from countries outside the EU”.
It is this emphasis on immigrants from “countries outside Europe” that has caused a sharp intake of breath.
Said one receptionist we spoke to, working his fourth year in a hotel in Quarteira, “for sure they’re meaning they hope to get away with paying immigrants even lower wages”.
“The reason hotels cannot find the staff has nothing to do with lack of available labour and everything to do with money,” he added. “There are professional courses all along the coast full of teenagers preparing to enter the sector, not to mention the trained people hoping for employment. There is no lack of labour here at all.
“The problem is that hotels these days offer very poor conditions. No-one knows if they will have a job for longer than six months, pay is abysmal, hours are excessive and there are almost no career possibilities.”
Our source is a university graduate, aged 34, who says the atmosphere in his hotel is “one of depression”.
“We try and stay strong, build a good team, but staff change all the time. That’s not good for the company, for the quality of service offered, even for workflow.
“If I had a family, like many of my even younger colleagues do, I would be very concerned by this statement.
“We already have no stability. We cannot plan for our futures. If hotels are now hoping to bring in immigrant labour, what will become of the few of us who have managed to hold on to jobs?”
Asking us to give him “an alias” as “speaking out will only get me into trouble”, the young man told us his particular hotel has already started hiring from temp agencies.
“When they need staff, for example for cleaning, they get them through these companies. The people come one day and go.”
“Money is the only thing that rules in this industry. We are all numbers.”
Use of the concept of immigrant labour to redress structural problems is not new: last year prime minister António Costa tried to attract refugees to work in the forests. This year, environment minister João Pedro Matos Fernandes is talking about getting them to populate inland areas “where there is a scarcity of fertile women” while working on abandoned land.
Whether these plans bear fruit or not remains to be seen. Certainly, Costa’s call for forest workers appears to have dissipated without results into the ether.
AHETA’s statement refers to “substantial efforts and investments” by hotels to overcome staffing problems and try “whenever possible” to offer “accommodation and other facilities to their workers”. These, however, “have not been sufficient to resolve the enormous structural lack that the region faces in this regard”.
Here our source raised the question: “what kind of accommodation are they talking about? Could it be of the type offered berry pickers in the Alentejo which are today’s modern-day slaves – almost all of them immigrants from Asia desperate for any kind of work as they try to become legal?”
Elidérico Viegas has not elaborated on what kind of accommodation is failing to attract Portuguese workers.
He has simply reiterated that “companies have done what they can, but it is not enough”.
Viegas adds that, in AHETA’s opinion, what is needed is “partnerships between the public and private sectors, particularly to finance continuous training during the low season with a view to creating stable teams”.
In the end, stability is the core desire in ‘both camps’. Portuguese workers are desperate for it, but AHETA stresses that workers’ push for employment rights and what the association calls “a return to a protectionist past in terms of labour legislation” is not the way to get it.
For now, AHETA’s call is simply that. There has been no official response, either from the government or borders agency SEF.
By NATASHA DONN [email protected]