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‘A certain stigma’: Spain’s hospitality sector hit by waiter shortage

After a two-year drought, tourists are flooding back to Spain, but just as the hospitality industry begins to recover from the pandemic, it faces a new crisis – a shortage of waiters.

From Mallorca to Madrid, restaurateurs are crying out for waiters with tens of thousands of jobs waiting to be filled. The Hard Rock hotel in Ibiza is so desperate it is offering staff a €200 (£170) bonus to find suitable employees.

The paradox is that unemployment in Spain is running at 13.4% – more than double the EU average of 6.2% – yet there are more than 100,000 job vacancies, with as many as half of those in hospitality, even though the national statistics office says 85,000 bars and restaurants closed permanently in the first year of the pandemic.

“People come to me for interviews and they say: ‘I’ve got three offers already,’” says Albert Cabanos of the hospitality employment agency “We used to tell an applicant, we’ll call you if there’s anything. Now they say, I’ll call you if I’m interested. Or they say, I only want to work Monday to Friday.”

Staff and customers at a cafe and tapas bar in the old quarter of Valencia
Staff and customers at a cafe and tapas bar in the old quarter of Valencia. Photograph: DB Pictures/Alamy

So where have all the waiters gone? Many are immigrants and some went home, preferring to sit out the crisis with family and friends. Not all have returned, and now the government is proposing changes to the immigration law to make it easier for immigrants to legally join the workforce.

Many more waiters were forced to look for work elsewhere as Covid restrictions hit hospitality much harder than any other sector and have stuck with their new jobs, finding advantages to them they did not have in their previous lives.

Jeffrey Feliz Jiménez worked as a waiter and chef for eight years in Almería in southern Spain but has given it up for the regular hours of work in a furniture warehouse. “No one respects contracts and you never know what your hours are,” he says. “You have to work till closing time but you don’t know when that is and you end up working a lot of unpaid hours.”

Even when lockdown ended, bars and restaurants suffered a series of restrictions on opening hours and seating capacity that in many areas remained in force until January of this year. According to government figures, only 10% of hospitality workers are on permanent contracts and many were not entitled to furlough payments.

Workers simply could not afford to wait for business to resume as hotels and restaurants clung on until tourists returned, which they did not in any numbers until Easter, fully two years since the first lockdown was imposed.

Other sectors such as construction and logistics recovered sooner and faster than hospitality. “No one ever imagined that tourism would come to a stop so suddenly,” Cabanos said. “People in hospitality had to rethink their careers and they discovered ways of living that are much more compatible with family life.

“In hospitality you get Monday off and that’s that. But if you work as, say, a house painter, maybe you don’t make more money but you have the weekend off, you don’t work over Christmas and Easter.”

Over the past 20 years, employment in the sector has doubled from 900,000 to 1.8 million. One result is owners complain that it is increasingly difficult to find professional waiters, with fewer young people seeking a career in hospitality. According to the UGT trade union, the average monthly salary in the sector is €1,264, not a lot more than Spain’s €1,000 minimum wage.

“There’s a certain stigma attached to being a waiter, as though it isn’t a proper job, even though you’re in the business of making people happy,” says Patrick Pescetto who runs the Buenas Migas chain of cafes in Barcelona. “It’s getting harder to find professional waiters rather than students who are just trying to make a bit of money.”

Lockdown also gave a lot of people a chance to take stock of their lives. “The furlough scheme gave people a chance to think about what’s important in life and whether they were happy doing what they were doing before,” says Paige Tad, whose family run four pubs in the resort town of Benidorm.

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Tad’s businesses mostly employ Britons and they have had to close one pub for lack of staff. “It’s the knock-on effect of Brits moving back to England during the pandemic and on top of that, Brexit, which means that it’s not that easy for Brits to live and work here now.”

Monica Zajac, who moved to Barcelona from Poland seven years ago, worked as a barista in speciality coffee bars before taking an office job at the electrical appliance company Dyson that gives her more time to study for a new career as a psychotherapist.

“Working in hospitality can be difficult,” she said. “You have a lot of contact with the public which sometimes isn’t as pleasant as you’d like it to be. Life is short and you’ve got to follow your dreams.”


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