May 15, 2020 / 1:30 PM / 17 days ago

Migrant workers face cruel summer as COVID-19 batters European tourism

BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Argentine bartender Manuela Perez Simon hoped to escape her homeland’s economic troubles when she arrived in Barcelona’s touristy El Born district two years ago looking for work.

But like many of the migrant workers who serve cocktails and wait tables in the normally bustling neighbourhood, the coronavirus crisis is depleting her savings and leaving her barely enough to pay the bills.

“Luckily I’m a person who tries to save, but little by little that’s disappearing what with the rent on the apartment and the payment of basic food,” Perez Simon said. “The truth is, it’s going to be difficult.”

The livelihoods of millions of migrants working in seasonal catering and hotel jobs are at risk as the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc on Europe’s tourism industry, where nearly one in six workers are foreign.

Europe accounts for half of the global tourism market in terms of passenger arrivals and is a major source of low-paid seasonal jobs, especially during the peak summer months.

Spain, the world’s second most visited country after France, has been one of the hardest hit by Covid-19, and the government has ruled out any quick reopening of its tourism sector until it can be sure visitors face no health risk.

Following similar moves elsewhere in Europe, it has introduced a mandatory two-week quarantine for international visitors arriving in the country, effectively shutting its doors to holidaymakers for the meantime.

TO THE BRINK

Colombian migrant Alexandra Gartner took out a bank loan last summer to lease a beach bar in Segur de Calafell, a seaside town 50 km (30 miles) south of Barcelona, but the coronavirus pandemic has dashed her hopes of running a small business.

“We’re a sector that’s very affected... and there’s still a great deal of uncertainty,” said Gartner, who came to Spain in 2018 in search of better job opportunities.

“The rent we have to pay here and the other costs of the beach are already quite high... We’re at a point where we’re thinking of not opening at all,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Spain, which has reported more than 27,000 deaths from COVID-19, has started to ease its lockdown, letting open-air bars and restaurants in less-affected areas reopen from May 11 though only at 30% of normal capacity.

“If we have to reduce our capacity by 70%, it’s going to be very complicated,” she said.

FURLOUGHED

As tourism businesses across Europe brace for a grim summer, Spanish hotels have been especially hard hit due to their dependence on visitors from overseas.

France has said all passengers landing in the country will have to show their trip was essential, while Germany has extended a warning against non-essential international travel such as holidays until at least the middle of June.

Of Spain’s 1.4 million hotel workers, just over 900,000 have been furloughed since the coronavirus lockdown began, said José Luis Yzuel, president of Spanish hotel association Hosteleria de Espana. About 400,000 are foreigners, he said.

All documented workers, both Spanish and foreign, part-time and full-time, can access a state-paid furlough scheme, allowing them to claim up to 75% of their salary in the first six months and 50% thereafter, Yzuel said.

But he called for the national government to boost credit for small business owners with five employees or fewer, who make up 70% of Spain’s hospitality sector.

The Spanish government did not respond to requests for comment.

VULNERABLE TO LAYOFFS

In Spain and elsewhere across Europe, part-time and temporary migrant workers in tourism are particularly vulnerable to layoffs, in a sector that is characterised by this kind of contract, European Commission spokeswoman Marta Wieczorek said.

“EU member states must protect workers from unemployment and loss of income where possible, especially those most at risk, such as small businesses, temporary and low-paid workers, the self-employed and others,” she said.

Wieczorek said about 9% of the European Union’s tourism industry workers came from other member states, while a further 7% came from non-EU countries.

While national governments have rolled out state aid for tourism businesses and furloughed workers, the Commission has launched measures including a temporary support mechanism designed to help protect jobs and workers.

It will provide loans of up to 100 billion euros granted on favourable terms to member states. It is also working on a common response to the impact of the coronavirus on tourism, Wieczorek said.

In the southern Spanish region of Andalusia, renowned for sun-soaked beaches, flamenco and Moorish architecture, industry and labour specialists fear the downturn will last even as lockdowns are gradually lifted.

“The tourism sector is the one most seriously affected by the pandemic and will take the longest to recover,” said Estrella Salas, tourism director at the Andalusia branch of the UGT trade union.]

In El Born, Perez Simon is still waiting to receive her first payment under the state furlough programme, but she counts herself among the fortunate ones for now.

“We’re all in the same boat. At least I’m lucky enough to still have a job,” she said.

Reporting by Sophie Davies; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org

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