PARIS — For 18 years, Marie Marivel has worked as a security guard at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, checking large numbers of passengers and thousands of bags every day. It’s always been an arduous task, she says, but circumstances have recently made it downright impossible, as staff shortages nearly double her workload and a cost-of-living crisis ravages her modest salary.
As security agents, ground staff, baggage handlers and other airport workers in Paris begin a series of strikes on Friday to demand better wages and more staff, Ms Marivel, 56, is eager to join the fray.
The end of pandemic restrictions across Europe sparked a massive uptick in air traffic, Ms Marivel said. “But we are blatantly understaffed. And we can’t make ends meet anymore,” she says. “Employees demand more.”
Europe is bracing for a summer of labor unrest as rising inflation and labor shortages spark protests across the economy in sectors as diverse as the steel industry and waste collection. The struggle is most visible in transport, where overworked workers at airlines, airports and railways have started unleashing crippling strikes. A rail strike in Britain last week was the largest in the country in 30 years.
Several strikes are planned this weekend and beyond. Security guards at Hamburg airport in Germany are expected to go on strike for an entire day on Friday to demand better wages. Pilots of the Scandinavian airline SAS threaten strikes on Saturday if unions negotiate with the company about higher wages. British Airways check-in staff will resign later this month to make efforts to improve conditions at Heathrow Airport.
At the end of Friday, French news reports reported that the country’s civil aviation authority had announced that one in five flights at Charles de Gaulle airport would be canceled on Saturday due to ongoing strike action.
The European summer travel season had already started marred by chaos at airports, train stations and major tourist destinations as industry operators struggled to meet a rebound in demand. Thousands of flights have been canceled and thousands are canceled until August by airlines such as Lufthansa and easyJet as companies struggle to find staff or get laid off.
In Germany, the air shortage has become so severe that the government will accelerate thousands of foreign workers, mainly from Turkey, in the coming weeks to solve staff shortages in the areas of security, check-in and aircraft handling.
Wait times of four hours or more in security lines at major airports such as Heathrow in London and Schiphol in Amsterdam – where travelers were advised to “wear comfortable shoes” for the staggeringly long check-in delays – have been tamed, albeit temporarily.
They are likely to flare up again as unions in countries like Spain and Sweden plan another wave of industrial protests.
At European airports, baggage handlers, ground staff and other workers are employed by companies contracted out by the airlines and airports to provide services at low cost, a legacy of a European Union policy aimed at increasing competition in the sector. liberalize. At Charles de Gaulle Airport, where Ms Marivel works, a union said more than 800 contract companies have provided staff for a wide range of services, including check-in and bathroom cleaning.
Hundreds of thousands of those jobs have been cut in the past two years as air traffic was grounded due to the pandemic. With the demand for flying suddenly soaring, the travel industry has more than 100,000 job openings due to layoffs and layoffs of workers during pandemic lockdowns.
“Working conditions have deteriorated to the point that the sector is not attractive,” said Eoin Coates, head of aviation at the European Transport Workers’ Federation. Wages are low, he said, and many of the jobs divide the workday into unattractive shifts that start before dawn or last until midnight or later.
“Meanwhile, income and purchasing power have declined across the economy,” he added. “People are at the end of their patience.”
Eurozone inflation reached 8.6 percent in June — the highest in decades. Hourly wages have started to recover modestly after falling during the pandemic, but labor organizations say the recovery is not nearly enough to make up for the cost of living†
For Europe’s gigantic tourism sector, the threat of strike could not be greater. The airline industry is counting on a strong summer to offset high fuel costs, and tourist destinations are in need of a travel recovery to revitalize national economies.
In at least one case, the workload pays off. At Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, where a shortage of ground staff led to near-riots by some travelers who couldn’t catch their planes after hours in the security lines, management and unions struck a deal for a pay rise and better working conditions at the airport. The accord aims to end what unions say was a race to the bottom between airport contractors battling for work with low wages and precarious contracts.
The airport hopes the changes will attract new recruits. Higher costs are likely to be borne by airlines and ultimately passed on to travelers through ticket prices, but the alternative is further delays and cancellations which can be significantly more expensive.
“Workers are not only in a good position, but they also have good reasons to negotiate and demand higher wages in this context,” said Laura Nurski, a labor economist at Bruegel, a think tank in Brussels. “The airlines are trying 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 employee, is among those who say such conditions are no longer sustainable. Her monthly takeout salary is about $1,500 (about $1,560), she said, and her monthly rent is $900. Rising prices for energy, gasoline and food are now eating up her paycheck before the next payday comes.
“Most of us are in the same position,” said Ms Marivel, who works for ICTS France, a company contracted by the Paris airport authority to provide workers to inspect baggage and provide security.
“Our salaries have not been tracked and everyone is tightening their belts,” added Ms Marivel, who is also a member of the Confédération Générale du Travail, one of the French unions pushing for higher wages.
At the same time, companies like Ms Marivel’s have struggled to replace people who quit or were fired during pandemic lockdowns, putting pressure on remaining workers. Some jobs require weekend work or working shifts, day and night.
Aéroports de Paris, which manages Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports, said in a statement it needs at least 4,000 more workers. ICTS did not respond to a request for comment.
“A lot of people have left because they realized there’s more to it than working crazy hours for low pay,” said Ms Marivel. “The salaries are just not good enough for the circumstances.”
During a recent campaign to hire 400 people at an unemployment center near the airport, only 20 people took a job, she added. “Some come to work, they stay for half a day. They go out to eat and then we don’t see them again,” said Ms Marivel, whose union is demanding an increase of EUR 300 per month.
Whether the momentum holds up remains to be seen. Leverage is on the side of workers for now, but 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 recovery and reopening wind, leading to labor shortages,” he said. “But we are also entering a difficult period: the fear of a recession is high, the central banks are tightening policy. This therefore has a cooling effect on the labor market further down the road.”
While many people are spending money after two years without a vacation, the record surge in inflation could quickly dampen travel demand and the surge in spending.
“With the skyrocketing inflation, people are worried about the future, so that will have a big effect on consumers,” said Mr Kral. “People are spending like crazy now, but they’re going to get sober.”
Adele Shoemaker reporting contributed.