Ohere did all workers go? The question seems to be omnipresent in Europe. From French cafes and Irish construction crews to Czech car factories and Italian farms, employers once assumed that cheap labor could be summoned at will. Now the workers seem to have simply disappeared. Companies are grumbling, but rarely as loud as the Parisians who are waiting for an unconscious boys arrive with their drinks. In no sector is the shortage of personnel so glaring as in air transport. For weeks, tourists at some of Europe’s biggest airports have faced winding queues to catch their flights, assuming those flights haven’t been canceled due to lack of manpower. ‘work. Going on a relaxing vacation has never seemed so stressful. In this economy, everyone in Europe can find work; as a result, Europe does not work.
After two years of pandemic uncertainty, tourism is back (minus a few Asian visitors). For Europe, which attracts half of the world’s international travellers, this should be a boon. And yet the headlines are grim. Staff shortages at airports and airlines have led to an increase in flight cancellations. In June, when resorts and town centers should have filled up, British, French, German, Italian and Spanish carriers canceled nearly 8,000 flights, around three times the 2019 figure, according to Cirium, a consulting firm. Each abandoned trip results in a plane loaded with bloody stories: postponed Alicante bachelor parties, abandoned Tuscan family getaways. American air travel is also having problems, but none like the chaos that has engulfed parts of Europe.
Those whose flights have not been canceled might wish they had been. Wait times at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport reached six hours on some days in late May, prompting klm, the Dutch airline, to suspend bookings from its main hub for four days. Given the chaos behind the scenes, checking baggage has become a leap of faith. At Paris’ main airport, nearly half of all luggage that was meant to follow its owners to its destination on July 2 got lost. Passengers have been warned by unions that they may never find their bathing suits. A Cypriot member of parliament stuck at Frankfurt airport for two days has denounced “third world conditions” there in the same tone some Germans use when traveling in the Mediterranean.
Part of the devastation is due to tourism, which is rebounding quickly and unexpectedly. Deprived of vacations for years, vacationers are ‘revenge travellers’, exhausting what’s left of their pandemic-era stimulus checks. One might have expected the war on the continent’s margins to dampen demand. Instead, it caused the euro to plummet (almost to par with the US dollar), making Greek tavernas and Baltic beaches irresistible.
Airports should have been prepared. Predicting the number of travelers on any given day is not unreasonably complicated, given that they purchased their tickets well in advance. But aviation bosses have complained for months about the difficulty of hiring staff. Speeding up operations takes time: airport security needs to be checked and cabin crew trained (although you might not know that in some airlines). Then came the strikes. Travel workers who have walked off the job in recent weeks have included Scandinavian pilots, German security personnel, French airport firefighters, Dutch cleaners, Belgian cabin crew and Italian air traffic controllers.
The strikes partly reflect workers demanding that wages keep up with high tourist charges and runaway inflation. But the airports’ difficulties are not only the result of local social unrest. Far beyond the tarmac, European workers currently have the upper hand. Unemployment in the euro zone, at 6.6%, is the lowest since the launch of the single currency two decades ago. Some places are practically short of manpower: the unemployment rate in Germany is only 2.8%. She would have formerly made up for the lack of manpower by importing willing crowds of Poles or Bulgarians. It doesn’t work anymore: Poles and Bulgarians now find a lot of good jobs at home. Germany instead issues work permits to Turks to take care of their luggage. Whatever reluctance he might have felt to let in more non-EU migrants has been set aside. Europe now employs almost everyone within its borders who is willing and able to work.
Some might suspect that generous welfare states let many Europeans slip away. Last year, there was talk of a “great resignation” of former employees. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. A higher percentage of people aged 15-64 in the eurozone are in employment than before the lockdowns. The EUUnlike Britain or the United States, the workforce is now larger than before the pandemic, notes Jessica Hinds of Capital Economics. Many have better options than the jobs that were once reserved for them. “Everyone asks, where did they all go? reflected Tim Clark, the boss of the Emirates airline, according to Bloomberg. “And the answer is always: Amazon. It turns out running e-commerce packages for a living wage while listening to podcasts beats arriving at 5 a.m. to ask passengers if they’ve packed any liquids in their carry-on. Or serve impatient Parisians their cocktails, for that matter.
Europe is healing
Given its rigid labor rules and lackluster growth in recent decades, Europe has not often had to deal with the problem of having too many jobs. It is still a problem. The dramas visible at airports are also playing out in nursing homes, hotels and other places that need a lot of unqualified staff. They just get less attention. Some workers could see their wages rise, although many companies that rely on cheap labor say they cannot afford to pay more. Meanwhile, unions that typically negotiate permanent wage increases may worry that doing so now could fuel inflation.
Perhaps the labor market will regain some slack with the slowdown in the European economy. Soaring energy prices have darkened the mood in recent weeks, as has the resurgence of covid. That would hardly be good news except for struggling employers and those looking to take some time off on a distant beach. ■