Algarve tourism boss João Fernandes (RTA), here pictured at Faro airport on Monday, May 17 Photo: MARIA SIMIRIS/OPEN MEDIA GROUP

Portugal faces new travel threat

As the Resident went to press, authorities in the Algarve were ‘mobilising’ to try and head off a strike called by border guards for Faro airport.

Fears are that just as tourists are planning to start returning to the region, another raft of negative publicity could send them planning holidays in other destinations.

The SEF strike would undoubtedly cause travel chaos. Earlier this month, a strike called at Lisbon airport caused enormous queues when incoming flights were still at a minimum.

The threat has already seen AMAL, the region’s municipalities association, and RTA, the Algarve tourism board, put out a statement stressing they will pressure the government to call a civil requisition unless SEF reconsiders.

The issue has nothing to do with the legitimate constitutional right to strike, said the statement – nor with SEF’s arguments over the way the government has tried to ‘extinguish’ the service without any debate in parliament.

“What is at stake is the right to work of many residents of the Algarve; the right to recover the region’s economy at a sensitive period in which the country has an edge over touristic destinations.

“We cannot waste this advantage after a long period with no activity that has strongly impacted on Algarvian businesses and families,” said the release, signed by António Pina, president of AMAL, and João Fernandes, president of the RTA.

In the wider context, APAVT, the Portuguese travel and tourism association, has dubbed SEF’s plans an “obvious economic threat against Portugal at the precise moment that the recovery of tourism is making its first steps in this new phase of pandemic crisis, in which principal touristic markets have their eyes on Portugal”.

To even consider industrial action “could ruin the summer”, says the association.

This is clearly what SEF has realised. At loggerheads with the government which it has accused of mounting “a political and constitutional coup” (read ‘The Back Story’ further on), from SEF’s point of view, this is a ‘major bargaining chip’ moment.

In the pre-announcement for industrial action sent by SEF’s syndicate to the government last week, the service outlined how it intends to protest.

Says Expresso, inspectors will be refusing to work from 5am to 9am at Lisbon airport between 1-15 June, and between 9am and midday at Faro airport.

There is no strike action outlined for Porto (very possibly because this has less tourist traffic).

Madeira, however, has various actions planned: on May 31, June 7/14/21 and 28 – all timed for between 9am and midday (a crucial time for incoming tourist traffic).

Says APAVT, the plans will undermine confidence in Portugal as a touristic destination: “Every day that passes without this (strike) being called off will produce irredeemable negative effects on reservations.”

This fight was always going to get ‘dirty’: the way the government ‘decided’ SEF’s extinction has already been widely criticised.

AMAL and RTA have a two-pronged ‘attack’: they are putting pressure on the government (in the form of decreeing a civil requisition, which would impel SEF to work – regardless of the plans to strike), and they are also joining forces with business associations and other ‘partners’ to try and “pressure the SEF union to back off”.

As António Pina remarked to national television on Monday, the service won’t make any friends if it carries through its threat to strike – and friends are exactly what SEF needs if it is to have any chance of survival.

The Back Story
SEF has been in the news for ‘all the wrong reasons’ for the past year, due to the death of a Ukrainian job-seeker at a temporary holding centre at Lisbon airport in March 2020.

Three SEF inspectors have been handed jail sentences for their part in the brutal beating of Ihor Homeniuk; the government has paid over €800,000 in compensation to the man’s widow and family members. But the incident ‘accelerated’ plans which the government claims were already ‘in the melting pot’ to merge the service with other police forces and incorporate the bureaucratic side of SEF’s activities into a new entity altogether: SEA – standing for Serviço de Estrangeiros e Asilo.

SEF doesn’t accept this. Indeed, the union believes the ‘rush’ to extinguish SEF has been manufactured to try and paper over the sinking reputation of minister for interior administration Eduardo Cabrita – a man described by leading political commentator Luís Marques Mendes recently as ‘dogged by disaster’.

President of SEF’s syndicate Acácio Pereira says the fact that SEF’s extinction was ‘announced’ in government newspaper Diário da República is meaningless: it should have passed through parliament first.

This is the root of SEF’s strike action – and the service is wholeheartedly supported in its reasoning by minority parties on both sides of the house, all of which believe there should be a debate – and a vote – on the matter before anything is decided.

Today (Thursday) will see a bid by the CDS centre-right party to move this possibility along. The party has called for “questions of sovereignty, security and circulation of people” to be discussed along with “a project of resolution” for the restructuring of SEF to be submitted to parliament.

It will be difficult for the government to ‘carry on regardless’ – particularly since the so-called ‘father of Portugal’s Constitution’, law professor Jorge Miranda, has dubbed the executive’s decision-making “patently unconstitutional”.

Jorge Miranda, a senior professor at Lisbon’s University of Law, was asked to ‘pronounce’ on the controversy for SCIF, the syndicate that represents SEF inspectors. His ‘learned opinion’ has been seen by journalists at Diário de Notícias who wrote on Tuesday evening: “Jorge Miranda says SEF’s extinction without going to parliament is unconstitutional.”

Thus, the government has five days to work this mess out or see tourism caught in the crossfire.

According to Observador on Tuesday evening, SEF is still adamant its the strike will go forwards: “The syndicate says it is the last option” and that “professionals of SEF cannot be held responsible for whatever damages the action will cause”. Indeed the syndicate says that as far as it’s concerned, the strike “must be exclusively borne by Eduardo Cabrita and the government that sustains him”.

By NATASHA DONN
natasha.donn@algarveresident.com