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Opinion | Responsible Tourism | Spain


Business strategies that make tourism employment precarious

Ernest Cañada | Alba Sud

How do companies behave to reduce their labour costs? We know the dynamics of precariousness well, therefore in this article, some of the main mechanisms used in the tourist industry are identified. 

Photography by: Plaza Real, Barcelona. Source: Ernest Cañada.

Tourism is recurrently pointed out due to the low quality of the employment it creates. Low salaries, atypical employment, long work hours, flexible schedules, business association abuses, actions against the trade unions, are some of the constants repeated all over the place. Moreover, the composition of the staff is highly feminised (Obadić & Marić, 2009), with tasks clearly differentiated depending on the gender, which gives room to processes of horizontal segregation (Jordan, 1997). They also indicate the policies of working engagement that have taken advantage of structural inequalities motivated by gender to cheapen and making their staff more flexible. Likewise, there is a high participation of people coming from immigration, mainly of countries with lower income (Devine et al., 2007). In this way, women, immigrants and young people seem to make up the bulk of tourism’s workforce with low possibilities of developing a long-term career, thus rotation is one of the main characteristics of labour in these types of activities (Zampoukos & Ioannides, 2011). Labour precariousness and tourism employment are being more and more related to different areas of the world (Cañada, 2019).

The fundamental concerns of companies in the work field have more to do with the capacity to have qualified workers available to develop the tasks they need; the willingness to control them to work under certain conditions and discipline them to avoid, or reduce, possible behaviours that do not coincide with what is expected or that intent to organize collectively to defend their interests; and, finally, maintain low theirs costs, which translates into emphasising the processes of flexibility and intensification of labour factor. This set of basic corporate needs hovers over the management of the companies’ human resources. The personnel policies conducted in every enterprise to solve the concerns are organised according to the historic juncture the political-institutional context and the characteristics of the sector of activity. 

The scenario in which tourist companies operate is marked by an increasing inequality in the context of acceleration of economic globalization, by the increment of corporate power over labour and by technological change, that have generated increasing uncertainties in the work sphere. Precariousness ought to be fundamentally seen as a historical process, which obeys the policies of labour flexibility imposed by companies with state support, which: 

  • have expanded the atypical forms of occupation, such as seasonality, partiality or outsourcing, through which contractual obligations of employers with employees have diminished (Recio, 2007); 
  • have aggravated the flexibility of work organization (job categories, schedules, work calendar, mobility, functions); 
  • have intensified the loss of power of work, starting with the control of the production processes (Lewchuk et al., 2008); 
  • have laminated the capacities of collective action built around trade unions. 

In turn, without the presence of organizational trade union in businesses, or very weakened, the processes of labour precariousness find less resistance, and, therefore, the extension and the speed at which they take place are deepened. A vicious circle is thus created, in which unionism involves more precariousness, which, at the same time, turns into trade unions that are weakened, so both factors feedback, resulting in a labour market increasingly precarious (Banyuls & Recio, 2017). All of this leads to more insecurity, fragmentation and vulnerability of the workers (Banyuls & Recio, 2015; Cano, 2004; Jordhus-Lier, 2015). 

In the field of tourist companies, and especially in the hotel sector, from which we have a lot more information than any other activity, the daily mechanisms through which the process of work devaluation is consolidated are fundamentally related to: 

a) Measures concerning the composition of the workforce. 

Through these measures processes of staff selection which prioritise certain collectives take place, groups of people that can be paid less according to the naturalisation of certain structural inequalities for reason of gender, origin or age. In this sense, the staff is segmented according to the type of activity and characteristics assigned to some collectives. Those are the cases, for instance, of women when they develop tasks that can be linked to an extension of domestic and care work, which are socially devaluated by the patriarchal culture. Therefore, when these tasks achieve the labour market they are taken into the same poor considerations. However, it is also the case of immigrants coming from countries with a lower income, which are assigned concrete tasks by the job market. Finally, it is also the case of students that develop certain part-time and seasonal activities. This way, the migratory status, gender, social class and age are intertwined to organize the job opportunities in the labour market, creating employees more or less “appropriate” depending on every kind of task. For this reason, la distribution of the hotel personnel, for instance, is done differently according to the requirements of how it has been designed in each department and the images created through the naturalisation of abilities and certain stereotypes (Dyer et al., 2010; Zamudio & Michael, 2008).

b) Measures concerning forms of contract and linkage of the staff. 

Through those measures, the intention is to reduce the costs and make availability as flexible as possible according to the variable needs of the demand. This has to do with the processes of staff reduction and the increase of workload for the employees left; the destruction of standard forms of employment and the increase of atypical forms of contract, significantly temporary and part-time work, but also agencies of temporal work and outsourcing, due to processes of externalisation (Cañada, 2018; Knox, 2010). This involves making a discretional use of the moments in which there is work, which implies resistances against a labour calendar or being able to freely adjust the bags of hours. This nonetheless implies a variety of practices of doubtful legality, such as changes in the categories to pay less, the fraudulent use of freelance workers or internship students, the retribution by tips as is the case of free tours, or, finally, the obligation of working times longer than established by contract without retribution.

c) Measures concerning forms of retribution. 

The workers in precariousness situation assume higher levels of risk because the salary costs of the companies would not be permanent anymore, they would rather depend on the functioning of the business and the context. The participation in the distribution of income and the level of salaries decrease because the workers with temporary, part-time or outsourced contracts tend to perceive less salary due to lower recognition of job category, less bargaining power and not being able to accumulate days of labour seniority, among others (Recio, 2007). 

d) Measures that look for greater optimisation of the performance of those hired while they are at the work centre.

This applies a growing pressure due to the intensification of work and the versatility of the employees, so that the business can ensure that the workers hired to perform at their full potential during the whole time they are in the working centre. 

e) Measures that look for the limitation of the capacity of collective organisation with a clear anti-union bias which violates fundamental rights. 

These measures aim at the fragmentation of collective bargaining. In the Spanish case, for instance, the labour reform of 2012 has prioritised the company agreements over the sectoral agreements. This measure is clearly focused on decreasing the trade union power, so that outsourcing cannot be seen exclusively as a method to reduce expenses (Aragón, 2012; Cañada 2015, 2016). In this sense, the division of staff in multiple situations also weakens the organisational capacity and collective defence. Finally, it is necessary to point out the continued existence of various forms of pressure and coercion against trade union organisation. 


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This article was originally published in the journal Crítica Urbana, III(10), 2020.



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