After a decade of working overseas, chef Nikolas Tsimidakis returned from Dubai last year hoping Greece’s eventual recovery from the pandemic and a wave of Mediterranean tourism would get him a good job.
Like many others, he was disappointed. As further closures delayed Greece’s reopening and the start of the tourist season, Tsimidakis struggled to find work that offered security and a living wage. Reluctantly, he decided to return to the Gulf after finding a well-paying job in Abu Dhabi.
“I had two [job] offers[in Greece]. . . But no one could tell me when the hotel would open or for how long, ”Tsimidakis said.
Decisions like hers explain why Greece now suffers from a shortage of manpower in tourism. The sector typically accounts for one-fifth of economic output, but struggles to prepare for the vital summer season as potential restaurant and bar job candidates are deterred by the risk of further Covid-19 restrictions leading to the shutdown companies.
The problem threatens to severely hamper the country’s recovery from the pandemic, given the central importance of tourism to the economy. “This is the first time that we have faced such a shortage in the industry,” said George Kavathas, president of the Greek Federation of Restaurants and Allied Professions.
Many other countries, like Germany, have also struggled to recruit bar and restaurant staff as the pandemic eased. The difference with Greece lies in the relative size and economic weight of the sector.
It typically employs more than 432,000 people, or 10 percent of the national workforce, proportionally almost twice as many as Spain. So any problem can have macroeconomic implications.
HSBC predicted that the return of tourism as a whole would boost Greek growth by two percentage points this year, after accounting for two-thirds of the more than 8% decline in gross domestic product last year.
Christos Staikouras, the Minister of Finance, meanwhile predicted that tourism revenues would reach 8 billion euros in 2021 – less than half of the 18 billion euros in 2019 but double the collapse of the mid- pandemic of last year when industry revenues collapsed to € 4 billion.
But economists are now warning that the labor shortage, despite Greece’s 16.5% unemployment rate, the highest in the EU, could dampen economic growth and alter these economic and income projections.
“The main job-creating sectors. . . such as tourism, retail and entertainment are affected by uncertainty, ”said Nikos Vettas, managing director of IOBE, an economic think tank. “It is not known how quickly they will return to pre-Covid levels.”
Hercules Zisimopoulos, owner of a bar, hotel and restaurant who also runs a local tourism industry group on the party island of Mykonos, has accused the repeated cycle of closures and the easing of restrictions for discouraging workers from returning to work.
“The constant opening and closing of restaurants and bars over the past year has created great uncertainty and employees fear that we will be forced to close again,” he said. “That’s why they’re looking for other types of jobs,” such as delivery driver.
The problem is compounded by an oversupply of mediocre cafes, bars and restaurants that do not offer attractive employment prospects. After the financial crisis, the hospitality sector served as a buffer for many unemployed or low-skilled people.
As much as 92% of all new businesses opened between 2010 and 2020 were in the food and beverage business, Kavathas calculated, leading to a long-lasting oversupply crisis that peaked during the pandemic.
“People think it’s an easy job, that anyone can open a cafe, but that’s not true,” Kavathas said. “The excess supply. . . hurts everyone because the quality drops and the limited benefits are split among more. . . What we are seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg.
Some restaurateurs say government policies aimed at mitigating the economic impact of Covid-19 have made the problem worse. Subsidies paid to employees whose restaurants and bars are closed are still being offered because meals inside have not yet been allowed to resume.
Many workers now prefer to live off their state allowance of € 534 per month, rather than working in a restaurant where wages start at around € 850 per month, according to restaurateurs. The subsidy program has cost the government nearly a billion euros since the start of the pandemic.
“Many have become complacent because of the benefits they receive, and they are not looking for a job,” said Nektarios Nikolopoulos, owner of the restaurant and bar, based in Athens and on the island of Serifos.
Others see the staff shortage as a symptom of wider problems in Greek labor markets.
The country economic crisis that has lasted for a decade leads to lower wages that have not yet recovered, one of the highest youth unemployment in Europe and the emigration of many skilled workers – like Chief Tsimidakis.
Staff shortages are “a sign of dysfunctional labor market,” said Vettas, who blamed “too many regulations” for making employment in Greece “inflexible”.
Meanwhile, even the most famous places in Greece are worried.
Lefteris Lazarou, a Michelin-starred chef, said this summer season was the first in 35 years that his famous restaurant Varoulko – on the seafront in Piraeus, on the outskirts of Athens – has struggled to fill. its 76 positions, which are usually caught in a flash.
“Every year my inbox was so full of resumes from people wanting to work here that I wasn’t able to go through them,” he said. “Now I don’t have a single one.”