Airport workers have had enough
PARIS — For 18 years, Marie Marivel worked as a security guard at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, screening crowds of passengers and thousands of pieces of luggage each day. It has always been grueling work, she says, but conditions have recently made it downright impossible, as staff shortages nearly double her workload and a cost-of-living crisis plunders her modest salary.
As security guards, ground crews, baggage handlers and other workers at Paris airport launch a series of strikes on Friday to demand better pay and more hires, Ms Marivel, 56, is eager to join the fight.
The end of Covid-19 restrictions across Europe has sparked a huge revival in air travel, Ms Marivel said. “But we are grossly understaffed. And we can no longer make ends meet,” she said. “Workers are asking for more.
Europe braces for a summer of social unrest as soaring inflation and labor shortages prompt protests across the economy, in sectors as varied as the steel industry and the garbage collection. The disputes are most visible in transportation, where overstretched airline, airport and railroad workforces have begun to trigger crippling walkouts. The railway strike in Britain last week was the biggest in the country in 30 years.
Several walkouts are planned for this weekend and beyond. Security workers at Hamburg airport in Germany are set to go on an all-day strike on Friday, demanding better wages. Pilots of Scandinavian airline SAS are threatening to strike on Saturday as unions negotiate with the company for a pay rise. British Airways check-in staff will leave work later this month, agitating for better conditions at Heathrow Airport.
The start of the summer travel season in Europe had already been marred by chaos at airports, train stations and major tourist destinations as operators in the sector struggled to meet a surge in demand. Thousands of flights have been canceled and thousands more are cut through August by airlines such as Lufthansa and easyJet as businesses scramble to find staff or face layoffs.
In Germany, the pressure on aviation hiring has become so severe that the government will accelerate the recruitment of thousands of foreign workers, mainly from Turkey, in the coming weeks to alleviate staffing shortages in security areas. , check-in and aircraft handling.
Waits of four hours or more in security lines at major airports like Heathrow in London and Schiphol in Amsterdam – where travelers were asked to “wear comfortable shoes” for the incredibly long delays at check-in – have been tamed, but temporarily.
They are likely to flare up again as unions in countries like Spain and Sweden predict a new wave of industrial protests.
At European airports, baggage handlers, ground staff and other workers are employed by companies contracted by airlines and airports to provide low-cost services, a legacy of a European Union policy which aims to liberalize competition in the sector. At Charles de Gaulle airport, where Ms Marivel works, a union said more than 800 contracted companies provided staff for a wide range of services, including check-in and bathroom cleaning.
Hundreds of thousands of those jobs have been cut over the past two years as air travel has been banned due to the pandemic. Now, as demand for flights has suddenly increased, the travel industry is left with over 100,000 vacancies due to worker layoffs and resignations during Covid shutdowns.
“Working conditions have deteriorated so much that the sector is no longer attractive,” said Eoin Coates, head of aviation at the European Transport Workers’ Federation. Pay is low, he said, and many jobs divide the workday into unattractive shifts that start before dawn or last until midnight or later.
“Meanwhile, across the economy, incomes and purchasing power have been reduced,” he added. “People are running out of patience.”
For Europe’s gigantic tourism sector, the threat of a strike could not be more critical. The airline industry has been banking on a strong summer to offset high fuel costs, and tourist destinations need a rebound in travel to help revive national economies.
In at least one case, labor pressure pays off. At Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, where a shortage of ground staff led to near-riots from some travelers who couldn’t board their planes after hours in security lines, management and unions protested. reached an agreement for a pay rise and improved working conditions throughout the airport. The deal aims to curb what unions have called a race to the bottom among airport contractors competing for work through low wages and precarious contracts.
The airport hopes the changes will attract new hires. Higher costs are likely to be borne by airlines and ultimately passed on to travelers via ticket prices, but the alternative is additional delays and cancellations which could be significantly more costly.
“Workers are not only in a good position, but they have good reasons to negotiate and demand higher wages in this context,” said Laura Nurski, labor economist at Bruegel, a think tank in Brussels. “Airlines try to offer low fares,” she said. “But when you fly cheap, the cost comes from the wages or the conditions of the people who work there.”
Ms Marivel, the Paris airport worker, is among those who say such conditions are no longer sustainable. Her monthly net salary is around 1,500 euros (about $1,560), she said, and her monthly rent is 900 euros. Rising energy, gas and food prices are now eating away at his salary before the next payday arrives.
“Most of us are in the same position,” said Ms Marivel, who works for ICTS France, a company contracted by Paris airport to provide workers to inspect baggage and provide security.
“Our wages have not kept pace and everyone is tightening their belts,” added Ms Marivel, who is also a member of the General Confederation of Labour, one of the French unions demanding higher wages.
At the same time, companies like the one Ms Marivel works for have struggled to replace people who quit or were made redundant during pandemic shutdowns, straining remaining employees. Some jobs require weekend work or different day and night shifts.
Aéroports de Paris, which manages Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports, said in a statement that it still needed to find at least 4,000 workers. ICTS did not respond to a request for comment.
“A lot of people left because they realized there was life beyond working crazy hours for low pay,” Ms Marivel said. “The wages just aren’t good enough for the conditions.”
In a recent campaign to hire 400 people at an unemployment center near the airport, only 20 people found jobs, she added. “Some of them come to work, they stay half a day. They take a meal break and then we don’t see them again,” said Ms Marivel, whose union is demanding a raise of €300 a month.
Whether the momentum will last remains to be seen. Although the leverage is on the workers’ side for now, the very conditions that led to higher wage demands are likely to cool, said Daniel Kral, senior economist at Oxford Economics.
“We have a big cyclical rebound and tailwinds for reopening, which are creating labor shortages,” Kral said. “But we are also entering a difficult period: there are huge fears of recession, central banks are tightening their policies. So it will have a chilling effect on the labor market later on.
And while many people are splurging after two years without a vacation, the record spike in inflation could quickly dampen travel demand and the spending spree.
“With soaring inflation, people are worried about the future, which will have a big effect on consumers,” Kral said. “People are spending like crazy now, but they’re going to sober up.”
Adele Shoemaker contributed report.