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Exploring the options

Better pay and conditions for workers can improve the UK’s tourism industry, writes Tom Baum



Can tourism in the UK today offer the great jobs and career prospects that will appeal to both young entrants and older workers looking for opportunities in a new sector? Tourism in this country has long suffered from its Cinderella status: former prime minister Harold Wilson once described it as having a ‘candy floss’ image and that kind of perception continues to taint its appeal as a career.

Tourism in the UK (and, indeed, globally) has undoubtedly been among the hardest hit sectors from the economic, regulatory, socio-cultural and, indeed, human impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Businesses have faced enforced and extended periods of closure and restrictions on trade, leading to dramatic changes to the personalised service that lies at the heart of the tourism experience.

The stop-start nature of the closures and restrictions has undermined confidence in the industry and in the opportunities it provides for sustained and sustainable employment. Covid-related job losses in tourism, worldwide, run into their tens of millions. Yet, paradoxically, the tourism sectors in the UK and many other countries in the global north, are currently experiencing severe labour shortages at the very time that they seek to re-establish business viability.

Has the perfect storm of the pandemic and the labour market consequences of Brexit coalesced to place a premium on tourism skills as the sector struggles to recover, or has it shattered an already fragile labour market in frontline service work? We argued during the early stages of the pandemic that the impact on tourism work served to accentuate already precarious characteristics rather than reflecting anything fundamentally new. There is little to suggest that much has changed in this regard in the intervening 15 months.

Recruitment and retention in UK tourism remains challenging because of pay, job security, working conditions and the relative lack of opportunities to counter the social and economic disadvantage experienced by women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and other marginalised groups. In addition, the past two years have seen a growth in demand for skills across a range of competing service sectors in retail, logistics etc, offering more stable employment and a better work-life balance.

It is also important to recognise that employment in the tourism sector is hugely diverse with micro and mega businesses that provide work across hospitality, travel, heritage, culture, sport and leisure, located in every community in the country. Many of these destinations are highly seasonal in terms of tourism, whether traditional seaside resorts or remote rural locations in Scotland, Wales and the West Country. They include some of the most economically disadvantaged communities in the country. The impact of varying seasonal demand is, undoubtedly, the most intractable structural issue that confronts attempts to create long-term and sustainable employment opportunities in UK tourism and one which the industry and its stakeholders have singularly failed to resolve.

Tourism in the UK needs to confront the employment demons that undoubtedly beset it and hinder the development of a workplace that is attractive to current and future workers. The pandemic offers a once-in-a-generation chance to address difficult questions about tourism work.

First, what are the key priorities for improving the working lives of UK tourism workers? Here, we need to recognise the long-term dependence of UK tourism on a precarious, dispensable and, frequently, migrant workforce and the consequences of Brexit-induced controls on this supply of labour for the long-term business model adopted throughout the tourism industry. The real danger is that the UK’s new points-based system for immigration does not include any legal route to employment for many potential migrant workers in tourism and risks fostering new forms of informal, undocumented employment that will indirectly contribute to further degradation of work and employment conditions.

We also need to engage in intelligent conversations about where and how AI and automation can further contribute to change in tourism work. Automation in the delivery of tourism services has already progressed significantly, especially in terms of marketing, reservations and distribution, eliminating a significant number of jobs in the process. The potential for further technological substitution and jobs reduction is very high, cutting out many ‘bad jobs’ but, paradoxically, also denying employment opportunities to many otherwise marginalised workers.

Second, we need to ask how we can improve jobs, creating ‘decent work’ opportunities in all the sectors that depend on tourism in order to survive and thrive. Here we must confront the widespread mistreatment of tourism workers. As recent studies across a number of countries have shown, the abuse and misuse of employees in some sectors of tourism, notably hospitality, by both employers and customers, is endemic but rarely acknowledged as such. Change will only come when tourism as an industry acknowledges such abuse and takes responsibility for its eradication.

We should involve the tourism workforce as partners in meaningful discussions about the future of work in the industry. Membership of the Hospitality Sector Council, announced by the UK government in September last year to advise on how to revitalise the sector after the pandemic, is notable for the absence of any employee voices. It is also important to address the lack of regulation of disruptors that operate in the gig or sharing sector, which can create poor quality, low security jobs for those working as food delivery riders, taxi drivers or short-let housekeepers.

Third, we need to look at how we shift the balance within tourism jobs from short-term seasonal work to long-term and rewarding careers. We need to acknowledge that, in peripheral locations such as seaside towns and highland destinations, there will always be a requirement for seasonal work (and that some categories of employees such as students welcome short-term working opportunities). The key issue is how we get better at managing a dual workforce of core-career staff, and seasonal workers, whether students or migrants from elsewhere in the UK or overseas. If seasonal workers can recognise that there are decent work and career opportunities on offer in tourism, they may return to the industry in the future.

We should also focus on tourism careers through a different lens. Career opportunities in tourism have long been framed, by both education providers and employers, in terms of access to the corporate ladder, with parallels drawn with opportunities in other sectors such banking and accountancy. This argument ignores prospects for working lives in tourism that focus on entrepreneurship and innovation. In one sense, entrepreneurial opportunity in tourism is not new, given the absence of regulation and low thresholds to entry in many tourism businesses. However, such micro-business start-ups frequently have little support and entrepreneurs lack the appropriate skill-sets for success. Indeed, the unintended consequences can be to create more precarious jobs and lifestyles in tourism as the labour supply is spread ever thinner.

At a policy level, there is a need to critically challenge the narrative that portrays tourism, in some senses, as an economic and social ‘saviour’ for seasonal locations which would otherwise face even higher levels of disadvantage were it not for the sector. Is there an argument that our flagship seaside towns, rather than benefiting from tourism, face the economic disadvantage that they frequently do precisely because of tourism’s low wages and precarious employment? Policy should focus on the economic diversification of seasonal tourism destinations, ensuring that tourism enhances the quality of life of the resident population and avoids the levels of disruptive ‘over-tourism’ that were witnessed at the end of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in the UK.

However, focusing the lens on employers and employees alone in seeking to resolve issues that long pre-date the Covid-19 pandemic perhaps misses a fundamental consideration in relation to tourism employment and its workplace dilemmas. Tourism is a sector where ‘the customer is always right’ – in determining the price and value of goods and services, in shaping the relationship between those purchasing and those delivering these goods and services and in evaluating the outcomes of transactions, generally via social media. The customer is patently not ‘always right’ and there is a need to afford greater protection to employee rights in tourism.

As a society, we are focused on paying the lowest possible price for airline tickets, rooms and meals without reference to the social consequences of our drive for cheap, cheap, cheap. Given that labour is the single most expensive item for most tourism businesses, when consumers push down prices, spending on employees will inevitably reduce as well, whether directly (through real wage cuts) or indirectly through increased workloads or reduction in training. Therefore, until the ‘lowest price’ equation in tourism is addressed and consumers are willing to pay a fair sum for their experiences, it is very unlikely that issues relating to pay, working conditions and job security in tourism will be resolved.

This blog is part of our series, Holidays and Hope. Read more about the project here.

Tom Baum

Tom Baum is professor of tourism employment at Strathclyde University and head of the Department of Work, Employment and Organisation.

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