Europe

Portugal's seasonal jobs paradox

Cafes on the Algarve, Portugal
Image caption The Algarve draws tourists from across Europe

Bar terraces are filling up with red-skinned holidaymakers ready for a drink after a day on a beach. Daylight is giving way to neon signs. Laughter mingles with summer hits. Cocktail bars in Portugal's tourist hotspot, the Algarve, are just warming up for a busy night. But their managers are struggling to find staff - in a country where unemployment has just hit a record high of 18%.

"Almost everybody is looking for people to work," a young manager of the Piccadilly bar, Joao Carvalho says. On a window, a notice in Portuguese and English indicates he is looking for waiters and bartenders.

In the Algarve, where unemployment is higher than elsewhere in Portugal, bars, together with restaurants and hotels, provide one out of every six jobs.

But long working hours, often from six in the evening to four in the morning, six days a week, put job-seekers off bar jobs.

"They want to work in hotels, have two days off, good salaries," says a tired-looking Rui Carvalho, the manager of the Second bar. For weeks, he has been trying to make up for missing staff.

What about those who fail to get hotel jobs? "Some people prefer to live on benefits rather than working," says Jorge Sa of the JC bar.

Still substantial

After all the austerity measures in crisis-hit Portugal, unemployment benefits are still quite generous.

At 65% of the pre-unemployment wage, jobseekers get between 419 and 1,048 euros (approx £355-£888; $549; $1,374) a month for the first half-year and 10% less afterwards.

People in their 20s and 30s - the age typical of bar staff - can receive the benefits for some 12 months, if they have worked for just a couple of years.

They form a significant part of the Algarve's unemployed. One in four of the 25- to 34-year olds was without a job in March, according to Portugal's statistics institute.

Not all of them are on benefits. "Young people live too long in their parents' homes and have no need to get a job," says Lourenco Vicente of the Meet bar.

Similar claims come from others, not only bar managers. So are the Portuguese in the Algarve really happier jobless than working? Experts say it is not that simple.

"The situation in Portugal is too tough to believe that people have free choice between work and unemployment," says Portuguese economist Jose Reis.

Seasonal

On a hot June morning, the door at one of the Algarve's job centres is very much open for business. Many of those coming in "are willing to accept jobs they wouldn't have a few years ago", says Carlos Baia, the regional director of Portugal's employment agency.

However, jobseekers who have a choice are cautious about the job they take. "They don't want work for just six months," says Rui Carvalho.

Tourist season in the Algarve ends in October. Few bars stay open and keep their staff all year round. Many are left to survive the winter without a job and with no right to any financial help from the state.

Only the jobless who have worked for at least 12 months during the last two years qualify for unemployment benefits, leaving out all those who worked their first season.

The prospect of long months without a job greatly reduces the appeal of otherwise good salaries that bars offer. This has shrunk even more after a recent rise in income tax.

"I'm earning 100 euros less than last year," says Daniel Napier, a daytime waiter.

He is planning to get a job in the UK during the winter. "Then I'll come back and work another season here," he says. "In Portugal it is like this."

Eyes east

To encourage employers to keep their employees on over the winter, the government has offered to pay half of the wages. "During the low season we give training to the workers so that they improve their skills and do their job better the next summer," says Mr Baia of the employment agency.

Image caption Tourism only creates seasonal work

The programme under which this is happening was launched too late to make any significant impact last year.

Whether it will interest small bar owners is uncertain. "Bosses don't want to keep the staff," says Mr Vicente. "Nobody wants to promise anything, because you don't know what will happen next year."

Managers are impatiently waiting for the end of the school year, when students from other parts of Portugal and abroad come to work during the summer.

"Last year I had staff from Denmark, Holland, two years ago from Norway," says Mr Vicente.

Bar jobs, shunned by Portuguese, are attracting jobseekers from neighbouring Spain, where unemployment is at 27%.

But managers' new darlings are immigrants from eastern Europe. Ukrainians, Romanians and Moldovans form a big chunk of the Algarve's foreign community.

They do not shy away from any kind of employment. "Maybe they don't like it, but they can do the job," Mr Vicente says. "They have come here to work, not to have fun."