19. Seasonnaires’ pay and conditions for 2018/9

Is this the end of exploitation in the catered chalet market or the demise of the catered chalet market?

As we approach the final weeks of the 2017/8 ski season thoughts and conversations focus on next winter. This is despite the copious amounts of snow still glistening outside apartment windows at lower altitudes than previously seen at this time of year. Terms and conditions for the multi-functional hosts have been evolving apace over the past few years for those working in the catered chalet corner of the winter hospitality industry. The British are the major group of users of this style of holiday and next season could see the most significant changes yet, for both staff and guests.

In past decades UK tour operators have employed school leavers on diminutive salaries as so many wanted to experience the thrill of this hedonistic lifestyle for five months. Supply of cheap labour outweighed demand by 100:1 if propaganda is to be believed. The number of applicants may have lessened but still significantly exceeds demand. As a result of this basic capitalist principle wages, and consequently prices of holidays, were contained; company profits sat on the healthy side of the graph. However, change is here and the full impact on this industry is yet to be felt.

Five years ago Switzerland imposed their minimum wage on the industry to improve the lot of these chalet slaves but resulting in many operators withdrawing smaller establishments from their brochures, unable to make a reasonable profit. France, Italy and Austria were rumoured to follow close behind, but didn’t until last season when a couple of the main players limited their staff to 44 hours of a work with 1.5 days off each week.

Other companies resisted this improvement in working conditions as they continued to enjoy the price/wage levels set by a huge supply of potential candidates. The previous normal working week was up to 80 hours, at the beginning of the season, reducing to 55-65 with improved efficiency, with only one day-off, for 18-20 weeks, paid at £7.45 per day, plus a food allowance of £5 per day – although food was provided – and holiday pay based on the £7.45.

Working a season is not for the faint-hearted. An over-recruitment policy is implemented by some of the larger companies to cover the 25% ‘natural wastage’ resulting from injuries and illness, homesickness, family demands etc. What isn’t mentioned is the proportion of staff who walk out, disgusted by the Dickensian conditions.

Next winter will see more changes applied across the industry in Europe. Chalet staff hours will reduce further, to less than 40, salaries will increase to over €700 per month and protected time off will increase to 2 full days. This may have been influenced by Brexit although employers will claim to be more caring for their staff. The result will be increasingly expensive holidays for Brits who choose catered chalets.

If the brochure price doesn’t vary much customers will probably receive less for their money, compared to this year. Next winter many guests will be served cooked breakfasts, freshly-baked afternoon tea cakes and evening meal on only 5 days instead of 6, to allow for a second staff day-off. Canapés are already as elusive as chamois, these were amongst the first tasks to be cut due to the time required to create the fiddly little mouthfuls, taking almost as long as the main course preparation.

Historically seasonnaires have all had the same single day-off to socialise amongst themselves, causing huge resort-wide demands in restaurants on Wednesdays only. Two consecutive days off would be one option for the new format, but could disrupt the limited breakfast provision on the second morning. Staggered days off seem the obvious solution but it remains to be seen how that will work out. Only one company is reputed to be recruiting more staff in order to continue to deliver the same standard of service to their guests. Prices will have to reflect their increased costs; alternatively profits could decrease, but that seems unlikely.

A second evening meal out for 2018/9 season will increase guests’ costs, even if brochure prices remain similar. A cheap meal in the Alps is as rare as a marmot sighting in January. There is minimal change from €15 for a burger and drink anywhere on the slopes. Evening meals cost upwards of €25 for a main course with a wine or beer, a 3 course meal with a number of drinks will be over €50. Guests may resent the hassle of going out on a second evening when they’ve been out all day – not everyone wants a roaring night-life after a day on the slopes. They could demand the use of chalet kitchen facilities, previously denied, but if allowed, could add to staff workload on return from days-off, particularly if guests are not inclined to clear up after themselves. Two evening meals out each week could produce a significant increase in profits for local restaurateurs but guests may chose to reduce their expenditure by dividing restaurant bills between the 2 nights at cheaper joints.

Staff benefits in kind: accommodation, food, lift pass and kit may reduce to mitigate the increased direct costs resulting from these changes, but there has been little to indicate that this will be the case. Traditionally cited as compensation for, or supplemental to poor wages, these packages sound generous but cost relatively little. Accommodation standards could possibly fall further but have always been as cheap as available, although some better than others, but the ensuing squalor in certain digs may have been created or increased by the occupants. Lift passes are discounted to tour operators anyway as they sell them on for a margin. Equipment is usually old and of poor quality, 4th or 5th year from connected hire shops, and would have been binned or sold for a pittance if not given to seasonnaires for a sizeable deposit (and frequently mislaid).

All this bodes well for new seasonnaires who, with no knowledge of previous conditions, don’t seem to appreciate their already improving circumstances. The job is switching from task-based: working as long as it takes to complete, to time based: stopping when the hours have been completed, regardless of whether the job is finished. The former model produced increased efficiency and corner cutting wherever possible, even literally running around the chalet to be out on the slopes as early as possible. However, an attitude of entitlement, verging on belligerence, has now materialised – ‘I’ve done my hours. I’m out of here.’ Sadly, ‘It’s not my job’ has replaced the team spirit of ‘We’re all in this together.’

Veterans consider these new hours and rates of pay to be amazing. We know how to complete the job efficiently: fast chopping and peeling, not stopping work whilst talking, moving items around the building in one journey, neglecting Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram during working hours. Those of us with several years experience, including the end of the era of exploitation, and a track record of reliability, capability, knowledge and customer satisfaction whilst efficient, could be highly desirable.

Private chalets may struggle in this market of reduced profit margins. Their staff have to adopt all the roles delivered by the resort team of the big operators: cook, cleaner, snow shoveller, tour rep, (although these are being replaced by apps in some of the larger companies) chalet manager, handyman and driver. Their packages have been variable but broadly commensurate with the lower end of the pay scales. These smaller businesses will have to follow the bigger companies or risk losing staff to the more attractive terms and conditions, unless they can come up with some other new incentives.

Larger operators will need to think laterally: moving head offices to within the EU or employing English speaking, hard working and hospitality-familiar people from other EU countries, upsetting a tranche of British school leavers. Meantime, if you are thinking of a catered chalet holiday for 2018/9 don’t procrastinate, but be sure to read the small print, or in one case, the front page, in full.

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