"Every shift is like hell": seasonal workers in tourism industry

Good food, beaches, bars, fun. This is what summer looks like for many tourists coming to Tunisia to spend their holidays here. But the season, seen from the perspective of seasonal workers, takes on a very different look. In total contrast with the picture postcard scenery, the summer season for people employed in the tourism sector implies long, tiring, and poorly-paid shifts behind the scenes. 
Written by | 27 August 2023 | reading-duration 10 minutes

Available in ArabicFrench
While sitting outside a cafeteria in Sidi Bou Said, Ahmed* seems relaxed, enjoying his cigarette and coffee. “I just quit my job some days ago”, he says smiling. With the late afternoon traffic around him, he explains the reasons why he left his bartender job in one of the most touristic spots in Tunis. “The wage was not bad – if you have to sit in a call center the whole time. When you have to run back and forth between tables and cocktails, the story is different”.

Ahmed’s experience is similar to the ones of Sarra*, Ayoub*, Bechir*, Samir* and thousands of other workers that are employed depending on the season and its needs. The flow of tourists, nonetheless, has not reached the pre-COVID 19 levels yet, and finding a job can be a hard quest, especially a regular one. With wages that are not enough to survive and hectic working conditions, the situation of seasonal workers translates into no social security, no rights, no stability, in an environment that, as Bechir and Samir say, aims to exploit them as much as possible. 

The quest of finding a job

Bechir is a high school student who just quit, after two months, his work in an ice-cream parlor which has several locations in Tunisia. He started working at the shop in La Marsa during summer 2022, as he needed money to support himself. But with a monthly wage of 550 dinars, it was a hard mission to accomplish. “Don’t think that just because it’s La Marsa then people are paid better, it’s the same here as in the city center”. 

Despite the bad working conditions, he decided to accept the job again, this summer, at the same place, as finding an occupation in the tourism sector is not easy: 

“You need a contact in the sector you want to work in, otherwise obtaining a job is really hard”, all respondents agree.

Sitting next to Bechir, Samir nods bitterly. He works as a food runner in a nightclub, where he sets tables, brings food and dishes to and from the kitchen. “Me too, I’ve found my job through a friend of mine. I’m lucky because I make 700 dinars per month, some people get 400”. Similarly, Ahmed relied on his contacts to find employment, just like Ayoub, a check-in agent at summer events spread between Gammarth, Tunis, and Hammamet. 

He goes on explaining how, also in this environment, the circle is fairly narrow. “Reputation and trust is everything, bosses don't really want to see new faces. Once you have a winning team, you don’t change it”. Although he likes his occupation, Ayoub sees it more as a side hustle, especially because of the lack of stability. “So far I have worked once in June and twice in July, everything depends on how many events will be held in the area”. 

What is more, there is no certainty regarding how long they can actually hold the job: if any problem occurs, the worker will be the one risking it all: “They can fire you anytime”, says Samir. 

Sarra, who worked in a hotel in Bizerte some years ago, explains that now the job market does not offer many opportunities. “There are less tourists, so employers need less staff, and wages have not improved during these years”.

No contracts, poor treatments

With a tourism sector just recovering from the pandemic period, and limited job opportunities, working without a formal employment contract is very common. Out of the five people Inkyfada talked to for this investigation, only one, Ahmed, had a contract – and only because he specifically asked for one. “I wanted to be sure to receive some money after finishing my working period”, he says. 

The problems connected to seasonal work are poorly explored right because, as Raja Dahmani, head of the Committee for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and member of the UGTT and ATFD, explains, most of the people work without a contract. Thus, no precise data is available with regards to the number of people employed seasonally in Tunisia.

When she was working at the hotel, Sarra was in her early twenties, and remembers clearly that she didn’t care about being regularized – she just needed money. With no social protection guaranteed and no possibilities for sick leaves, Samir laments that also when you are sick, you have to go to work.

"If you stay home because you’re sick, bye-bye, you’re fired. There’s always someone willing to take your place”

Getting hurt during the shift does not allow you to stop, either. Ahmed, during a shift at the bar, cut his thumb and couldn’t manage to stop the bleeding. Nonetheless, he had to keep on working. “You basically hope for the best, that nothing will happen”, Ayoub smiles, “Personally, I’m twenty two years old, I don’t care about saving for retirement, I’ll think about it later, I need that spare money now”.

The legal, correct option to regularize seasonal workers should be the Fixed Term Employment Contract, which is guaranteed by the article 6-4 of the Labour Code in Tunisian law, explains Elyes Chafter, lawyer at the Chafter Raouadi firm. 

Chafter adds also that, under the Tunisian law, ‘contract’ does not necessarily mean that it has to be a written contract: “The most important is whether employees are declared to the social security system or not, which means that the employer pays the contribution for the employee and declare them as their employee to the social security fund. This allows workers to have medical insurance (CNAM) and work accident insurance, for example”. 

“The ‘contract culture’ is not strong in Tunisia. Also there are a lot of taxes if you have papers”, Ayoub states.

This lack of framework can lead to other abuses, such as the employment of underages, which is said to be common practice. Bechir, the worker at the ice cream shop, is among one of the many minors employed informally in this sector: “I started last year when I was sixteen, it’s not legal but all of my friends do it anyway, we need money”. 

Samir, listening to these words, adds that in such situations you know that you can’t find anything else, so you stick with what you have: “Also, we’re young”, he laughs, “I’m eighteen, they know they can give us less money, if they hire someone older, the wage must be higher”.

Underage children are allowed to be employed regularly in Tunisia in the field of agriculture and at their parents’ work from the age of 13 years old. In nonindustrial and nonagricultural activities, the minimum age rises to 16, but specific working conditions must be in place, as Chafter explains. Aside from the lack of labor protections, minors are also exposed to a higher level of exploitation. Employers know that underages don’t have the right to work, so their wages can be lower as bosses are aware of the fact that no one else is going to offer those young people a different – or better – opportunity.

Nonetheless, the lawyer adds that almost all seasonal workers are students who need these jobs, and the people Inkyfada interviewed confirmed that not having a contract was not an obstacle – but it came with a price. 

The cost of resisting hectic rhythms

In this environment, where workers are often deprived of contracts, social benefits and insurance, overtime is commonplace... often unpaid.  “You spend eight or more hours standing, going from one table to another, it’s tiring and stressful”, says Bechir. With these rhythms, the only weekly day off of Bechir and Samir is spent only to rest, regain energies and prepare for the upcoming working week. It’s summer and we don’t have time to go to the beach and enjoy it”, they complain. 

According to their testimonies, the workers are dependent on their employer, who imposes on them working rhythms and length of breaks. In Bechir’s case, over a shift of eight hours or more, he was allowed to have a total of thirty minutes of break, which he was splitting in three smaller breaks. 

All the interviewees agree on the fact that, during rush hours, asking for a moment of respite was impossible. “Sometimes, after the rush hours, you sit to smoke a cigarette, but you’re so tired that you can barely think", sighs Ahmed. As a bartender, his shift was longer and harder during special events, when a higher flow of people was expected. As a result, the whole working day was, in fact, a ‘peak hour’.

“For a normal shift, I used to earn 35 dinars. According to the contract, during special events I had to earn one and a half times as much as a normal shift, but this never happened”, he admits, highlighting how tips constituted an important part of the final salary. 

At the ice cream parlor, Bechir was earning double his normal daily wage during holidays, but, for example, on the day of the Aid he had to work for more than twelve consecutive hours.  But the fact that he quit before receiving his last paycheck, however, makes Bechir worry: “I don't know if I will receive my salary for these three weeks of work in July”, he admits bitterly.  Pay-day was also always delayed for Samir, as several times he had to wait for days, if not weeks in order to receive the monthly wage. 

According to the respondents, the current job market offers are so poor that, once one finds a job, however tiring and poorly paid, workers try to resist and stay as long as possible. Samir is still trying to do so: “The friend that got me the job, he is the head chef in a nightclub. He told me to go with him, that it would have been easy work, but really, every shift is like hell”. 

It’s usual for seasonal workers to give up and leave their occupation if they realize it is not worth the effort, like Ahmed did: he preferred enjoying the summer without living to work. Sometimes major problems present along the way, and the situation becomes unbearable. This is what happened to Bechir. “I quit because I had issues with my supervisor over tips, which were not equally distributed among all the workers. When I pointed this out to them, they pretended that it was not true. So I left, I had enough”. 

In cases of exploitation or mistreatment in the workplace, the path of reporting irregularities is long. “The Workers’ Union has to analyze your claim and accept it if it’s considered fair”, says Raja Dahmani. The downside of this process, she explains, is that it can cost you your job, which is not a viable option for most workers. There is also the chance that if your claim is not deemed funded, you cannot access the assistance of the Workers’ Union in denouncing irregular working conditions.

Exploitative working environments

In the experience of Sarra, seasonal workers stuck together, but the relations with other, ‘stable’ workers was good. “Of course there was exploitation”, she nonetheless adds, smiling. Sarra was ‘hired’ without a contract, and her duties have always been blurred: she was cleaning dishes, preparing tables at the hotel restaurant, and welcoming tourists too. Her working day started at 6am and finished at 4 or 5pm. 

When her main duties were over, she was assigned other tasks, like cleaning windows or floors sometimes. “I am not proud of the experience, now I see that they used me for tasks that were not suppoused to be mine. I think anyway that it was good, for me, to have that experience when I was young”.

Bechir also refers that seasonals find support in each other, and complains that at the ice cream shop, communication with 'permanent' colleagues and superiors was not respectful. There were no requests, only orders. “ And if you criticized them for something, even the smallest thing, they would try to increase your workload, give you tasks that you’re not supposed to do”, he adds bitterly. Although extra hours are expected, and unpaid, arriving at work late was not admissible, and usually increased his extra time at the end of the shift. 

At the beginning of every working night, at the bar where Ahmed was working, there was an initial and final stock counting. At the end of the shift, a machine calculated what was sold that night according to the receipts generated – and there could be a ‘manque’. 

“For example, if they gave us 300 bottles of initial stocks, and at the end of the shift we found out that we sold 200, there should be 100 remaining bottles. If we found only 90 – the cost of the 10 missing ones was split among the workers”, says Ahmed. Bechir adds that it’s the same at the ice cream shop, so also when a glass or something breaks, the cost of it is on the workers.

Employers know that seasonals will work only for a precise amount of months or might quit beforehand, and in Bechir’s perspective this influences the mistreatment of this category. “If you are young and you don’t know the world, of course they are going to bully and insult you, too”, states Samir, specifying that you always have to prove yourself so that senior colleagues and supervisors won’t bother you. 

“You have to behave but also show respect for others and for you, so they won’t exploit you”, agrees Ayoub. As a check-in agent at parties, he also has to maintain good relations with the bouncers he collaborates with: “It’s not only for work. If there are issues, you know you will have to work with them again, that maybe you’ll meet them when you’re with your friends enjoying a party – and they can cause you problems”.

There remains a lack of controls on workers’ conditions from the State. As Chafter says, police can fill this role, but the work inspection authority is the state body that controls the compliance with the work regulation. “Police used to check more during the pandemic, but now like before if there are irregularities, managers give them money and the situation is over”, says Sarra. “During events, police come and ask how many people there are, if there is alcohol and so on, then they ask for money and leave” , explains Ayoub. “But they could come several times during the same event, and everytime you have to pay them. That’s it”. 

Multiplying crises

The situation of seasonal workers, especially those employed in the tourism sector, has become more complicated in the last few years, says Raja Dahmani. Accomplice to this negative trend was certainly the pandemic period, which strongly impacted the flow of tourists arriving from abroad. Sarra, who worked in a hotel during the summer of 2016, explains how now most of the tourists are locals, who go visit specific cities and sites for one-day trips, without the necessity of booking hotels. “But now tourism is opening up again also thanks to arrivals from our neighboring countries, Libya and Algeria , explains Dahmani.

She explains that the impact of COVID-19 is still visible, but also the economic and social crises Tunisia is going through contribute to a lower number of internationals coming to the country. 

Security issues at the borders and the perceived threat of terrorism, adds Dahmani, also do not help in attracting more people to the country. So far, the data seem encouraging, as Tunisia has welcomed more than 5 million of tourists by the end of July 2023, according to an interview the Minister of Tourism Mohamed Moez Belhassine gave on Mosaique FM.

Lower rates of tourists mean, for the local population, that restaurants, bars, and hotels need less personnel, which partially clarifies why the job market is so narrow at the moment. Sarra adds also that working with local tourists has changed the standard qualifications for jobs, since for example speaking multiple languages is no longer strictly required. In simple terms, the industry does not pay the same kind of attention and care to locals as it does with international Westerners. “This is Tunisia, we need them [Western tourists]. When they come, you treat them well, because you know they have money”.

At the end of the day, the dilemma is whether such conditions and wages are worth the struggle. Ahmed left his occupation in Gammarth to enjoy the rest of the summer with his family and friends. Sarra never went back to the hotel, although she had the opportunity to. “Now I don’t think it was worth it, but at that time I thought it was okay, doing all that for the money, it was a big deal for me, working and having my own money, not asking my parents, being independent”. 

Ayoub sees no stability in his occupation, he knows it can only be a temporary side hustle. Eventually, it all comes back to money. “Money is the only thing that makes us satisfied”, Samir sneers. “But the experience is terrible. I am sacrificing my summer – and not even for good money”.