Why airport employees are on strike

PARIS — For 18 years, Marie Marivel has worked as a security agent at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport, screening throngs of passengers and thousands of bags every day. It’s always been a backbreaking job, she says, but lately conditions have made it completely impossible, as staff shortages almost double her workload and the cost-of-living crisis plunders her modest salary.

As security officers, ground staff, baggage handlers and other workers at the Paris airport launch a series of strikes on Friday to demand better pay and more hiring, Marivel, 56, is eager to join the fight. .

The end of Covid-19 restrictions across Europe sparked a huge renaissance in air travel, Ms Marivel said. “But we are glaringly understaffed. And we can’t make ends meet anymore,” she said. “Workers demand more.”

Europe is bracing for a summer of labor unrest, as skyrocketing inflation and labor shortages spur protests across the economy, in sectors as varied as the steel industry and garbage collection. The struggle is most visible in transportation, where overstretched workforces at airlines, airports and railways have begun to trigger crippling strikes. A rail strike in Britain last week was the biggest in the country in 30 years.

Several strikes are planned for this weekend and beyond. Security employees at Hamburg airport in Germany are expected to stage a one-day strike on Friday, demanding better wages. Pilots at the Scandinavian airline SAS are threatening to go on strike on Saturday as unions negotiate with the company for higher wages. British Airways check-in staff will walk off their jobs at the end of this month, calling for better conditions at Heathrow airport.

The start of Europe’s summer travel season had already been marred by chaos at airports, train stations and major tourist destinations as industry operators struggled to meet resurgent demand. Thousands of flights have been canceled and thousands more are being cut through August by airlines including Lufthansa and easyJet as companies scramble to find staff or face job layoffs.

In Germany, the aviation hiring shortage has become so dire that the government will speed up the hiring of thousands of foreign workers, mainly from Turkey, in the coming weeks to alleviate staff shortages in security, check-in and handling of aircraft.

Waits of four hours or more in security lines at major airports such as London’s Heathrow and Amsterdam’s Schiphol, where travelers were advised to “wear comfortable shoes” for staggeringly long check-in delays, have controlled, even temporarily.

They are likely to flare up again as unions in countries like Spain and Sweden plan a new wave of industrial protests.

At European airports, baggage handlers, ground staff and other workers are employed by companies subcontracted by airlines and airports to provide low-cost services, a legacy of a European Union policy that seeks to liberalize competition in the sector. At Charles de Gaulle airport, where Marivel works, a union said more than 800 subcontracted companies provided staff for a wide range of services, including check-in and toilet cleaning.

Hundreds of thousands of those jobs have been eliminated in the past two years as air travel has been suspended due to the pandemic. Now that the demand for flights has surged, the travel industry finds itself with over 100,000 job openings due to layoffs and worker resignations during the Covid lockdowns.

“Working conditions have deteriorated so much that the sector is not attractive,” said Eoin Coates, director of aviation for 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, across the economy, incomes and purchasing power have shrunk,” he added. “People are at the end of their patience.”

For Europe’s gigantic tourism sector, the strike threat could not be more critical. The airline industry has banked 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, work pressure is paying off. At Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, where a shortage of ground staff led to near-riots by some travelers who couldn’t get to their planes after hours in security lines, management and unions reached a deal for a raise. salary and better working conditions throughout the airport. The deal is aimed at curbing what unions said was a race to the bottom among airport contractors vying for work through low wages and precarious contracts.

The airport hopes the changes will attract new recruits. Airlines are likely to shoulder higher costs and ultimately pass on travelers through ticket prices, but the alternative is more delays and cancellations that could be considerably more expensive.

“Workers are not only in a good position, but they have good reason to negotiate and ask for higher wages in this context,” said Laura Nurski, a 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 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 take-home pay is about 1,500 euros (about $1,560), she said, and her monthly rent is 900 euros. Rising energy, gas, and food prices now eat up your paycheck before your next payday arrives.

“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 screen luggage and provide security.

“Our wages have not kept up, 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 the one Ms. Marivel works for have scrambled to replace people who quit or were laid off during the pandemic shutdowns, straining remaining employees. Some of the jobs require working weekends or working different shifts during the day and night.

Aéroports de Paris, which runs 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.

“Many people left because they realized that there is life beyond working crazy hours for low pay,” Ms. Marivel said. “The wages are just not good enough for the conditions.”

During a recent campaign to hire 400 people from an unemployment center near the airport, only 20 people accepted a job, he added. “Some come to work, they stay half a day. They go for a lunch break and then we don’t see them again,” said Ms. Marivel, whose union is demanding an increase of 300 euros a month.

Whether the momentum will last remains to be seen. While leverage is on the side of workers for now, the same conditions that led to higher wage demands are likely to cool off, said Daniel Kral, senior economist at Oxford Economics.

“We have a big cyclical upswing and tailwinds for reopening, which are creating labor shortages,” Kral said. “But we are also entering a difficult period: there are big recession fears, central banks are tightening policy. So this will have a chilling effect on the job market later on.”

And while many people are splurging after two years without a vacation, record-high inflation could quickly stem travel demand and the spending spree.

“With inflation skyrocketing, people are worried about the future, so it’s going to have a big effect on consumers,” Kral said. “People are spending like crazy now, but they’re going to sober up.”

Adela Cordonnier contributed report.

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