Saturday, January 02, 2016

Seasonality And Jobs: The real problems for Mallorca's tourism

Things will be much as they were in 2016. The themes that dominated 2015 will be those most in focus this year. At island level, these will be all-inclusives, flights, holiday rentals, overcrowding, labour laws and employment, seasonality, the tourist tax, urban and rural planning and regulation. More widely, there will be the uncertainties of instability in other destinations and of terrorism. Mallorca will continue to benefit, but the uncertainties are such that atrocities closer to home can never be ruled out.

The year should see a raft of legislative measures with implications for each of the island-level issues. Despite its own uncertainty, the tax is the one for which there is some clarity. But the chaotic process that has so far surrounded it is not a good omen for when it finally comes into effect. The government, so determined to have it in place for the start of the season and to justify its annual budget, is ignoring the administrative difficulties it will create for different sectors of the tourism industry. It should have looked at the lesson of Catalonia and scheduled introduction for November, as was the case in Catalonia in 2012. 

While issues such as the tax are of general and wide interest - and the same can be said of all-inclusives, flights and rentals - 2016 may well become a year in which the less headline-grabbing issues surrounding employment take centre stage. The regional government has already signalled its intentions to get tough on employment and tax fraud, with thinly veiled hints that big players are going to be put under scrutiny.

The German television report at the end of August which exposed alleged labour abuses by hotels and other businesses in the hospitality sector caused minimal ripples among the British on the island. But it most certainly was taken note of elsewhere. Biel Barceló, the tourism minister, said that such negative publicity can be damaging for tourism but he acknowledged that it cannot be ignored. As a member of a government that is committed to rooting out poor or illegal labour practices, he is party to an effort in which his ministry will be collaborating with the employment ministry, the tax agency and social security. Ideologically for this current government, the exposure of a big fish would represent a triumph. There are plenty of businesses which should feel that they are on notice and should be careful this year.

Labour abuses apart, there is the whole issue of the structure of employment. We have heard a great deal about the lack of job security in the Mallorca tourism industry but comparatively little about a key aspect of employment which provides this security - the system of "fijo discontinuo".

Some twenty-five years in existence, this was introduced largely in response to union demands to tackle exactly the same issue of job insecurity. However, over the years it has come to be seen - and is - of benefit to different parties: employees with such contracts and hoteliers. As such, it has been identified by many as a key reason, if not the key reason, for hotels closing in the off-season. So long as hoteliers have secured ample returns in the summer season, they have no incentive to open, while those on "fijo discontinuo" can collect benefit in the knowledge of their job awaiting them the following season.

Politically, it is not a subject that gets a great deal of airing, but this isn't to say that political parties don't take a view on it. Podemos, for example, is opposed to it because it benefits the great ogre - in its eyes - the hoteliers. Meanwhile, under national government budget proposals, there is supposedly to be an extension of incentives to hotels to keep staff on "fijo discontinuo" contracts working for at least ten months of the year, as opposed to the seven which is typical. The incentive would be on social security contributions: in effect, a 50% discount, and what has been calculated as an average saving of 675 euros per employee. In the Balearics, as an example, there are some 14,000 workers in the industry who have such contracts.

But seasonality, which is at the heart of so many of the structural and market malaises that affect Mallorca, its general economy and its tourism industry, has been an issue which has exercised minds ever since there was a mass tourism industry. Despite allusions to some one-time golden age, which never existed (look back at the tourist numbers if you don't believe me) and that has certainly not existed this century, seasonality will never be adequately tackled. The weather is of course a factor, but as important is the complete failure of various parties to address the issue seriously or with any sense of harmony. We'll hear talk of winter tourism taking off this year, but it will remain illusory. If only Mallorca were Tenerife.

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