Vacation For Me, Not For Thee: European Workers' Hard-Won Summer Vacation Tradition Is Slowly Being Taken Away

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by Tyler Durden
Tuesday, Aug 15, 2023 - 08:15 AM

Authored by Conor Gallagher via,

August is the time of year that the majority of Europeans head off on vacation, and Americans reading the news are reminded of how crappy the paid time off policy is in the US.

That is no doubt true. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), American workers put in more hours than every other “developed” country in the ILO’s report – France, Belgium, Germany, Australia, the UK, and Sweden. That averages out to roughly 400 more hours on the job every year compared to Germany.

The legal right to paid vacation and total number of mandated paid holidays. Source: Center for Economic and Policy Research

In theory the Europeans’ vacation policies are a comparatively sane balance between capital and workers.

But if you start to peel back some class layers in Europe, what you’ll find isn’t pretty.

The vacation “privilege” has for some time been quietly eroding for the working poor.

While 75 percent of Europeans planned to travel this summer, the number one reason for those staying home was economic challenges. Forty-seven percent said they were too short on cash to go on vacation, which was up six points over last year. More from The European Trade Union Confederation:

The share of the total population who could not afford a holiday has increased in over half of EU member states since 2019 and even the share of working people who can’t afford one has increased in 11 countries.

Romania, Greece and Lithuania have the highest share of workers unable to get away for a week. Italy (8m) , Spain (4.6m) and France (4.1m) have the highest number of workers missing out on a break for financial reasons.

This coincides with a rise in the profit share of European companies, meaning executives and shareholders hoarded more money among themselves to the detriment of workers.

The cost of living crisis in Europe, largely due to the collective West’s ill-fated war against Russia, is only making matters worse. Inflation is sapping enthusiasm for vacation. Nearly one in three of Europeans say that price increases have increased their anxiety about summer vacation travel, and 48 percent were concerned about running out of money while traveling this summer. And that’s if they can get away from both of their jobs at the same time. From Euronews:

As inflation soars across Europe and beyond, an increasing number of workers are taking on additional jobs to combat the cost of living crisis.

New research from software company Qualtrics shows that nearly half of UK employees have either already looked for or are planning to look for a second stream of income, and 77 per cent are considering picking up overtime or extra shifts to pay their bills.

Other European countries are seeing similar trends: 30 per cent of workers surveyed in Germany and 22 per cent of those in France are considering taking on a second job.

Additionally, the professional managerial class might still spend their August at their beach homes, but they are increasingly working while there. According to Ipsos:

“Workation” is gaining in popularity among European actives: almost three out of 10 intend to work from their holiday location this summer, a four point increase compared to 2022 (28% vs. 24%). It remains significantly below Americans, 36% of US actives planning a workation next summer.

These trends are a continuation of the deterioration of the European summer holiday for the working class, poor, and retired. While the percentage unable to afford vacation varies from year to year depending on the economic situation ( e.g., it was 40 percent in 2013 and 28 percent in 2018), the key is that the ability to go on vacation is no longer universal, which was integral to the original labor efforts to win paid time off.

It wasn’t long ago that European countries offered free vacation destinations through the church, unions, or government. Those options are now mostly gone and those unable to afford a summer holiday either stay home or continue working because they need the money. On Europe’s current economic trajectory, how long until vacation is exclusively for the rich?

So what we have is a crumbling of one of European socialists’ crowning achievements, which started when the universality began to be chipped away. And unfortunately European policy is becoming more like the US rather than the other way around. The French labor movement fought for and gained guaranteed paid vacation time back in the 1920s and 1930s, and such policies soon became rivalries between the fascist and socialist states of Europe, as well as an opportunity for the latter to build support for the universality of the program and patriotism. David Broder writes at Jacobin:

Key here was the focus on leisure’s ability to bridge class divides — [undersecretary of state for sports and leisure Léo] Lagrange not only sponsored the “People’s Olympiad” in Barcelona, alternative to Hitler’s Olympics, but himself provided tours of Paris to agricultural laborers from other regions. Government support for member-run associations was aimed at fostering a collective management of leisure time, free of the patronage associated with church or charitable initiatives: for Lagrange, this would allow the “miner, the artisan, the peasant, the mason, the clerk and the teacher [to] gradually understand the unity of human labor.”

Without that unity, the hard-fought vacation time victories are being whittled away. I’ll use Italy as an example for this process since that is the country I am most familiar with, but data shows it is increasingly a bloc-wide assault on working class vacation. Rome used to be a complete ghost town in August. If you were a tourist who showed up at that time, you would have thought a fast-moving plague ripped through while you were en route at 35,000 feet.

Some bodegas might have been open in the city center around the tourist attractions, but that was about it. Everyone was on vacation. It did not matter if you were a manager or a janitor; you didn’t work in August, and nearly everyone fled the city for the beaches or mountain lakes.

Even for the poorest there were le colonie (“the colonies”). These were free retreats managed by the public or the church in post-World War Two Italy where children could go if their parents didn’t have the money for a family vacation. The colonies first began towards the end of the 19th century to house children with tuberculosis. More colonies were constructed during the 1920s and 30s and they began to host even healthy children, largely with a propaganda function under the fascist government.

After the war, as Italy built up its welfare state, it expanded the colonies and provided low-cost or free options for the entire family to vacation, as did France and other countries in Europe. As Italy’s economic boom progressed, however, the colonies and other cheap vacation options emptied out as most Italians had more money to spend and/or didn’t want to be seen as too poor to pay for their holiday.

The 1990s dealt the final death blow to the colonies. As Italy prepared to enter the eurozone, Rome was required to scale back its social spending, which meant less money for municipalities, and funding for the colonies dried up. Many have now become high-end resorts, and previously free areas for families have also been overtaken by development catering to wealthy Italians and international travelers.

Maybe at no time is this trend more evident than in Italian cities in August. Take Rome, which as stated above, used to be a ghost town during the month. By the 1990s the city center was no longer going quiet during August as service employees were required to remain and tend to the tourists. It’s only been in the past 10 years that the trend has moved outwards into Rome’s working class suburbs. More and more grocery stores, restaurants, and shops now remain open. Many workers say they would prefer to work because they need the money. While it’s great that European workers have 20 to 30 days of paid time off, it loses its luster if you’re not able to actually if you can’t actually afford to go anywhere or instead spend that time working your second job.

This also reinforces the idea of the summer vacation for some and not for all. An obvious solution would be better pay and bringing back free vacation destinations for the poor.

Without a summer vacation that all classes can enjoy, the hard-won tradition will likely continue to be slowly taken away (one can already hear the arguments that sacrifices on the number of vacation days must be made by workers to keep European businesses competitive) by capitalists who have never liked the August tradition for workers but will continue to enjoy it themselves.

Europeans don’t need to look far for what such a future looks like. Just ask the Americans.