From Majorca to the Alps: life in seasonal work

by Sim Sim Wissgott

SAALBACH, March 7, 2012 (AFP) - Summer in Majorca, winter in the Alps: not just tourists but seasonal workers jet between the two every year... and insist there is no shortage of jobs despite the economic crisis in Europe.

In the winter months, the small Austrian resort of Saalbach-Hinterglemm is filled with Britons, Swedes, Dutch and Hungarians running the bars, waiting tables and working security.

In the summer, they spread all over Europe -- Majorca, Corfu or London -- before meeting again the next winter season in the same resort or someplace new, wherever their fancy takes them and there is a job.

"I was in England. I picked up a ski brochure, opened up a page and it was Saalbach. And I thought: 'Ah well, I'll go there'," says Stuart Brough, 30, from Southampton.

After five years of doing seasonal work, he bought a bar in Saalbach this year and now plans to divide his time between Austria and Sweden.

"There's not really any planning behind it," he says with a laugh.

Peter Nagy, 26, had a business near Lake Balaton, a popular tourist area in Hungary, but had to close it for lack of customers and is spending his first season abroad.

"I live in a spa town and there are no job opportunities there in the winter, no guests, so I had to come here."

Now he does not want to go back. "It's a little uncertain, but... I don't have a family, I can go anywhere and I have a good job."

Between December and March, 1.4 million tourists pass through Saalbach-Hinterglemm, a municipality of barely 2,900 people, and the same goes for dozens of other ski resorts in Austria and neighbouring countries, requiring thousands of additional staff.

The Austrian job service AMS has no statistics for seasonal workers but the jump in the number of foreigners in the gastronomy and hotel sectors at the start of the winter is indicative: from 60,000 per month to 85,000 in December and January.

The hours are long and days off are few in the high season, but Nagy already plans to come back to Austria in the summer, perhaps with his younger brother in tow.

At home, "a Hungarian can earn about 100,000 forints, that's 300 or 350 euros ($400-450 ) in average minimum wage per month. Here, we earn about 1,200 or 1,500 (euros) with tips."

'If you need to find work, you find it'

Whether they start out searching for a job or for adventure, moving countries every six months becomes a way of life for many, and one these modern nomads are keen to continue for many years still.

"I love my life. It's made me more open-minded and carefree about the material things in life," says Paul Karis, 36, from Sydney, Australia, who has been doing seasonal work in Europe for seven years, driving bus tours in the summer and working in ski resorts in the winter.

But it is also a logistical nightmare: between finding a place to stay, figuring out local taxes and organising a SIM card for the phone in each new country.

"You live out of a suitcase for most of your travels and not many people can handle this," says Karis.

Of the 1,900 non-locals working in Saalbach in the winter, many come from Germany, Slovakia, Bosnia or other regions of eastern Europe with high unemployment, local councillor Roman Kendler told AFP.

In January, the jobless rate in the 17-member eurozone -- including holiday destinations Austria, France or Greece -- hit an all-time record of 10.7 percent, with Spain scoring the highest rate at 23.3 percent.

But those working in the apres-ski bars and restaurants here insist they have no difficulty finding work wherever they want to go.

"It's easy to find jobs all year round," says Nagy, who found his hotel job via AMS.

The website lists hundreds of seasonal positions for hotel receptionists, kitchen help and ski instructors in all prime Austrian ski resorts, and there are many more services offering the same thing.

Brough meanwhile says he got on a plane, turned up in Saalbach and just looked for a job... like he had already done earlier in Barcelona.

"I think you can always find something if you're willing to do anything," he says.

"When I came here my first job was washing dishes in a restaurant. Cleaning the bar in the morning, it's not the most glamorous of jobs but if you need to find work, you find it."

Contacts made in each new place also lead to job tips as paths cross time and again.

But where and when the next job will be is often a mystery.

"I don't know what I'm doing next to be honest," says Brough.

"I'll just sort of find something when I get back (to Sweden), maybe bar work or building, construction work."

"It's a solitary lifestyle, if you're not happy or comfortable being alone for a lot of the time, you won't cope too well," notes Karis.

"But on the upside, you meet a lot of great people."