3rd Dec 2023


Nice holiday? Nearly third of EU households couldn't afford one

  • Paid holidays are one of the first and greatest achievements of trade unions (Photo: The Travel Nook)
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As politicians, diplomats and lobbyists begin filtering back to Brussels over the next week, there will quite naturally be lots of watercooler conversations about their summer holidays.

Swapping anecdotes and advice about our travels with colleagues, it's easy to get the impression that everyone has just spent three weeks by a pool, at the beach or in the mountains.

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An idea reinforced by the deluge of holiday snaps on social media, ubiquitous adverts featuring blissful family scenes, and then 'la Rentrée', the French term for the return to the academic year, which implies we have all migrated elsewhere for the summer.

I wish this were the case. Paid holidays are one of the first and greatest achievements of trade unions.

The roots stretch back to the birth of the labour movement and its first May Day demand for "eight hours work, eight hours rest and eight hours for what we will."

The first paid holiday — of at least two weeks — was won by trade unions in France in 1936 through strikes which led to the signing of the Matignon Agreements with the popular front government and employers.

All workers in the European Union now have the right to at least four weeks' paid leave thanks to the Working Time Directive won by unions in 1993.

And unions are still fighting for and winning more holiday for workers today.

Workers in the EU whose conditions are set through collective bargaining between unions and employers benefit from an extra three days paid leave on average.

That rises to an extra week in seven countries and an extra two weeks in Croatia and Germany.

Taking a holiday is so important for our wellbeing and it will always be a priority for unions.

Which is why I'm so concerned about the number of people who still can't afford to go on holiday almost 90 years after we first one the right to take one.

In total, Eurostat data shows 29 percent of all households can't afford a week's holiday away from home — an increase on the previous year.

That includes a huge number of working people.

Over 19 percent of all workers — equivalent to 38 million people — can't afford a holiday, an analysis of the latest Eurostat microdata by the European Trade Union Institute found.

That rises to more than 50 percent among the lowest-paid workers.

Cleaners, carers or cooks — people who do tough work day in, day out — missing out on a well-earned break.

Plus rising package-holiday prices

And holiday poverty is likely to get worse thanks to a record rise in the cost of a package breaks, which is meant to offer the best value option for those on a tight budget.

The average price of a package holiday is now more than a month's pay for those earning the minimum wage in over half of member states.

It all means that far from being a break, summer is one of the hardest times of the year for millions of families.

A holiday seems a world away from parents who are struggling to find the extra money needed to feed children who would usually eat breakfast and lunch at school.

That's a task made even more difficult this year by inflation that has particularly affected food prices.

Meanwhile the CEOs who have caused inflation by using supply shortages as an excuse to ramp up their prices and profit margins will be sunning themselves in luxury resorts.

Summer has shone a light on the profound inequality in our economy and society which demands action from our leaders as they return to work in Brussels over the coming days.

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen should start by using her forthcoming State of the Union address to make clear that excess corporate profits not workers' wages are driving inflation, as US president Joe Biden did last week.

And, building on the directive on Adequate Minimum Wages, she could help deliver fairer pay by announcing a revision of public procurement directives to ensure that only companies which engage in collective bargaining of wages and conditions, such as paid holiday leave, can be awarded public contracts.

The highest percentage of working people unable to afford a holiday are found in Romania (43 percent) and Greece (37 percent), where von der Leyen took her own summer holiday this year.

Those countries have also seen the biggest cuts to collective bargaining coverage over the last two decades.

In Hungary, which has the third highest level of holiday poverty, workers would receive €250 more a year on average if collective bargaining coverage was restored to its 2002 level.

The right to a paid holiday is an important European tradition and we need to ensure that it can be enjoyed by everyone, not just the privileged few.

Pulling out all the stops to promote collective bargaining is a good place to start.

Author bio

Esther Lynch is general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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