The pandemic forced workers to jump to other sectors where they found better prospects. There are no quick fixes to bring them back.
As the world slowly recovers from the pandemic, a lack of travel and hospitality industry workers has seen cancelled flights, support staff shortages, venue closures and disruptions.
While COVID-19 has been made the scapegoat, scant mention is made of the precarious working conditions and low pay the industry has historically laboured under.
The industry now has a chance to rebuild itself for the better. Across the European Union, the World Travel and Tourism Council reports that the travel and tourism industry is facing a staffing deficit of 1.2 million in 2022, with Italy the most hard-hit country.
Unstable and transitory work contracts, a lack of respect for employees, absent or inconsistent career advancement, unsocial hours and evidence of workplace abuse are cultural attributes that travel and hospitality employers have tacitly ignored.
In part, this reflects the fact that the industry has a far higher proportion of what the UK’s Office of National Statistics calls ‘elementary occupations’, plus a disproportionate representation of young workers, women, minorities and recent migrants.
It also tells a tale of the wider uncertainties of the jobs available, often with fractional hours, seasonal positions and zero-hours contracts in the formal, informal and gig economies.
The realities of sudden job losses as well as health and safety issues that affect some of society’s most vulnerable workers are not new. What we’re witnessing are the consequences of long-term structural and cultural cracks that have expanded into chasms since the arrival of COVID-19.
Many of the travel and tourism workforces moved to other industries and liked what they experienced. Attitudes to employment, working conditions and work-life balance among many, especially younger workers, appear to have altered dramatically since 2020. It’s perhaps linked to wider trends that are bundled as the ‘Great Resignation’.
Addressing employment issues in tourism requires more than a quick fix. It needs sustainable, coordinated, inclusive responses and to be recognised for its convoluted nature, what economists describe as a ‘wicked’ problem. This will need a significant change in the mindset of key stakeholders, particularly managers and operators in travel and tourism enterprises.
Addressing the issue of pay is a must, but it’s not the only solution. The immediate mandate from industry leaders must be that a living wage replaces minimum wage requirements, regardless of age. This also includes transparent career structures, based on industry-wide standards, levels and pay bands.
Encouraging employers in Europe to embrace the International Labour Organisation’s principles of Decent Work, including better rights at work, social protection and social dialogue, with gender equality, could be a great start.
To better understand what individuals are looking for from their jobs, employers could engage with workers. Responding to these expectations and offering development opportunities, within operational constraints, can ensure staff retention and loyalty.
Listening to all employee voices, unionised and not, can facilitate collaborative and mutually beneficial working environments.
Employers could also create an environment free from abuse by colleagues, managers and customers. This can be done by endorsing and implementing zero-tolerance practices to challenge and prosecute (where appropriate) perpetrators of abuse.
Another vital area is implementing duty-of-care responsibilities for transport options for those working in the night-time economy.
There have been multiple studies and reports aimed at solving labour issues in the UK’s travel and tourism industry, these have often failed due to recommendations that don’t address the deeper issues.
But the recently released UK Hospitality’s Workforce Strategy for the Industry aims to ‘fix the crisis’ by recognising the wider drivers of staffing shortages. These include addressing affordable housing, local transport and access to digital communications.
The Inquiry into the Hospitality Industry, launched in June by the Fair Work Convention in Scotland, may offer greater potential for long-term and sustainable solutions.
The 18-month inquiry will consider the experience of fair work in the industry and how to balance the “rights and responsibilities of employers and workers” in ensuring a fair and equitable workplace, with active participation from all stakeholders including tourism workers and their representatives.
Tom Baum (PhD DLitt) is Professor of Tourism Employment, Department of Work, Employment and Organisation, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland. He declares no conflict of interest.