I work at a hostel in Spain. I work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, and for my services I receive, unlike Forster, a room without a view.
I ended up out here, not to take a summer travelling, or to kill time before starting a real job, but to attempt to start my life afresh in a new, exciting, and thoroughly beautiful world. My moving to Spain wasn’t a conscious effort to discover some serene inner knowledge through mixing with locals and living a lifestyle akin to a Tibetan monk who enjoys the odd night out, but I suppose it could be viewed as such. And I doubt you’d be too far from the mark.
My place of work is small. The hostel holds around 40 guests, charges very little in comparison to its immediate competition, and has a fairly decent rating on the main aggregator websites. My primary responsibility is for the night shift, though, within an informal work setting such as this one, I could find myself manning reception for a hour or two in an afternoon, or doing a bit of cleaning here and there, also. I perform your typical receptionist duties; checking-in customers, giving directions, dealing with whatever problems may arise, working the informal bar, and having general responsibility over the place. As I received no financial remuneration, I negotiated a cut of what beer or soft drinks we happened to sell. This, being a small stop-over style hostel, means my earnings amount to roughly 10 to 15 euros a week.
As a result, I live on the wrong side of the poverty line, and struggle to afford food never mind spending on leisure or planning for coming weeks or months. These problems can be fixed over time, maybe through private English tuition, or other private pursuits. However, they become more difficult when you only have a small window of time where you’re free to explore these other options. Going to bed at 8am doesn’t leave you available during the day to help someone improve their English, but instead gives you only the afternoon to try to squeeze people in before work begins again.
Add to this that you can only find clients who wish to meet publicly or that live locally, as you’re priced out of public transport. It certainly isn’t impossible, and the longer I’m here the more alternatives I’m attempting and making time for, but the crucial point is that the degree of exploitation of hostel staff is such that it gravely impacts on the workers’ ability to broaden their earning potential.
Being a hostel worker isn’t, of course, all doom and gloom. It’s generally a relaxed industry where labour is non-intensive, and tasks are rarely monotonous and repetitive. Making god-knows-how-many beds each morning, or washing up a shared kitchen worth of dirty dishes isn’t some artisanal task on the route to self-realisation, but it could be worse. The constant flow of largely eager happy travellers dying to see, learn, and explore, generally provides for a buoyant and characterful environment. Transience becomes your friend as faces come and go, stories flow one after another as a stream replenishes, and days of clear blue skies mask the passage of time. It has an idyllic quality which acts like a siren; trapping its prey with smiles and tapas.
Though, a perpetual holiday it isn’t. It begins like a holiday, but becomes one from which you can never leave, as you progressively run out of money, unable to visit that restaurant, go out to that bar, visit beautiful monuments, or spend any time to oneself. To an outsider you are in this perpetual party – a holiday which never ends – but the reality differs. That ache in your stomach as you root through food left behind by guests in the search for something edible isn’t a symptom of the idyll this industry can appear to be. The dread as you wave away hordes of partygoers into the night, knowing that on their return they’ll be rude, possibly aggressive, provide you with ample cleaning work, and put an end to any and all possible sleep you hoped you’d squeeze in before readying breakfast in the morning, isn’t an example of stress free living. The realisation that you haven’t left your place of work in an entire week, and even if you do find chance to venture out it is only for a walk, as you have no money in your pockets with which to do anything anyway, further emphasises the limits of this penniless mode of living.
But there is the sun. The warm touch of the sunlight as you pause between tasks on the rooftop, or as you inhale cheap tobacco on the patio, works wonders to pick up ones day, and to impart smiles on those around you. Despite whatever gripe eats away at you, a quick glance up at a blue sky framed by terracotta tiles possesses some magical healing quality – one which is so much harder to attain at home in the British Isles. Britain’s ubiquitous Seasonal Affective Disorder hangs over the land; grey skies and grey buildings reflect grey emotions. The hostel life does, in that sense, keep some quality of a ‘party’. It has the vibrancy, the colour, and the temperance – or lack of – of a party. The ups and downs are, much like in high tempo work in Britain, fully pronounced.
The dynamics of the workplace, and the interactions of employees, remain consistent with the strange yet energetic geist of the place. No one is contracted, and no one is even Spanish. With an immigrant labour force it is easier to impose worse conditions, hours and pay due to lower expectations. Migrant labourers don’t have the embedded roots of indigenous labourers: they don’t know the legality or illegality of employers’ behaviour; they can’t simply leave and move in with parents, friends, or another relative; they don’t have the language skills to attain further gainful employment; and they don’t have the capital to support themselves outside of the hostel whilst waiting for future opportunities. Of the five staff we have, we represent four continents, five native languages, and three religions. Communication is, as expected, difficult. However, the issue of communication isn’t simply pertinent towards our daily duties and fulfilling the various tasks expected of us; a lack of internal communication appears to me to be the linchpin of our fragmentation as a work force and our acceptance of so little in exchange for so much.
When a step back is taken, and the situation of myself and my colleagues is viewed from the outside, it all begins to look very worrying. Here are a number of penniless workers from across the globe, aged between 24 and 32, who work long hours for the profit of their bosses for no real pay in return. I quite enjoy my job, but that shouldn’t come into it; I am being exploited for my labour. One then must ask, how many others are being exploited in a similar manner? Many of us are already aware that over the summer lots of hostels are staffed via Labour Tourism, but it isn’t university students looking for a free holiday who staff these hostels the rest of the year. Across Europe a significant number of hostels will be running these same business tactics, and like mine, will be employing migrants from across the world who are both naive and desperate enough to provide their slave labour for an opportunity to station themselves in a new nation. This is not only exploitative of the migrant labourers, but also damaging to the already struggling local economies around Europe where youth unemployment figures are so staggeringly high.
I will continue to work here as the weeks and months go by, and continue to attempt to forge out a better living in Spain, but coming here and being exposed to the internal workings of the tourism industry in a modern first-world European country has horrified me at the level of exploitation seemingly taken as normal. These aren’t isolated incidents. These aren’t unusual. These employment practices are commonplace across the tourist industry.