By Bejay Browne
TWO YEARS ago 52-year-old Maria, who had worked for more than 30 years in the housekeeping departments of a number of Paphos hotels, was let go from her job without warning. She is convinced that she was being penalised for being Cypriot.
“I’m scared to give my full name as I want to work in Paphos again,” she told the Sunday Mail. “I have worked in hotels all my life, this is all I know and I love my job. I am a hard worker, but because I’m Cypriot, I won’t work for €400 or €500 a month like some of the foreign workers.”
For Neofitos Xenofontos, the district secretary of union SEK, Maria’s story is all too familiar.
He said that Paphos hotels were still choosing to employ foreign workers over Cypriots, despite assurances to the contrary made last year.
At present about 60 per cent of those employed in Paphos hotels are non-Cypriot European nationals and only 40 per cent are locals, he said, adding that while the hotels are exploiting the European workers, the local workforce was really suffering due to Paphos’ reliance on the tourism sector which favours cheap foreign labour.
“This is the only industry which is able to help slash local unemployment numbers and something needs to be done urgently,” he said.
“People who live here love the island. Locals offer a better hospitality than many people who come here to work just for a few months. They know nothing about Cyprus or its traditions and they can’t speak Greek. Most don’t care about anything; they are here for a short time and then they leave.”
Xenofontos added that it should be a prerequisite that Greek be spoken by employees in the hotel industry. This would drastically cut the local unemployment rate and also present a better image of what Paphos and Cyprus has to offer, he said.
Eleftherios Georgiades, the general secretary of the hotels unions, said the pay issue is directly linked to the lack of collective agreements. Some hotels prefer to employ people that are ready to work without a collective agreement because they are cheaper. He said this has led to mass unemployment in this sector.
“The collective agreement must be implemented. In 2013 it was renewed with the employees and although they basically lost 15 per cent of their benefits, they accepted it. The hoteliers said they would implement it but they haven’t. They are exploiting people.”
Georgiades said that unions were not against non-Cypriot EU workers, only the way in which some hotels use them to put pressure on current staff working with collective agreements, to fall in line.
“We visited parliament and the minister of labour at the beginning of the year with our demands. These included that workers’ main benefits should be protected. Also that they have the basic benefits – such as two days off a week, provident funds and proper working hours,” he said.
Georgiades said that some hotels were also unfairly firing Cypriots and replacing them with cheaper staff which they aren’t permitting to be ‘unionised’.
A representative of the Hoteliers Association (PASYXE), Evripides Loizides, denied that Cypriots were being discriminated against.
“The number of Cypriots employed in hotels is increasing. Last year in Paphos, there was an increase in the number of locals employed in this sector and it has increased further this year,” he said, adding that in 2013 more than 800 of the island’s total number of 2,300 new employees in this sector were engaged in Paphos hotels.
For Loizides the main issue was not pay or lack of collective agreements but the seasonality of the work, and he urged the authorities to find a way to extend the number of months that hotels operate – from eight to ten – which would present a more attractive package to potential workers.
“Who wants to work in an industry which operates for only six months of the year?” he asked. “Cypriots don’t really want to work in this industry anyway as they prefer government or semi government jobs.”
Loizides questioned why the unions were failing to put pressure on the big hotels to join the collective agreements and added that all employees were free to join a union if they wanted.
“Each hotel works differently, but unions are paying word games instead of facing the real problems, such as seasonality,” he said.
He also pointed to a recent job initiative which he said showed that many of the unemployed in Paphos have no desire to work in the hotel industry.
Around ten days ago, representatives of local hotels attended the labour office looking for staff. The outcome was “really sad” he said.
“Fifty suitable people, both Cypriot and European residents were offered jobs but only a few decided to take up the offer. Either they wanted to continue on benefit from the state or they had no desire to work, I really don’t know.”
But Maria, sacked from her hotel job two years ago, would view it differently, arguing the four to five hundred euros a month offered by hotels is impossible to live on.
“How can my family live off this? It’s disgusting and we are now under so much pressure and strain to survive. The government does nothing to help the people; they only care about the big bosses. I cry every day, worried how I will feed my family. My husband is out of work too. Something must be done and soon.”
Georgiades said he was aware of a number of cases similar to Maria’s which have occurred in Paphos in the last 12 months. He said that if the government fails to react to their demands which were made in February, strike action could be on the cards.
“People can’t be expected to work for a pittance each month,” he said.