Will it be au revoir to chalet girls?

A forthcoming court case to be held in Albertville, France, is expected to have serious ramifications on the British ski industry. Stephen Wood considers the possible changes
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The Independent Travel

Last Tuesday, an unprecedented meeting took place at Chambéry in France. Representatives of several UK ski companies, ranging from the biggest to a small independent, metthe Préfet and other senior officials of Savoie, the département in which most of France's major ski resorts are located. The agenda for the meeting, arranged by the French Government Tourist Office in London, was – at least from the tour operators' point of view – to explain their modus operandi and outline the economic benefits that British skiing brings to the French Alps.

Last Tuesday, an unprecedented meeting took place at Chambéry in France. Representatives of several UK ski companies, ranging from the biggest to a small independent, metthe Préfet and other senior officials of Savoie, the département in which most of France's major ski resorts are located. The agenda for the meeting, arranged by the French Government Tourist Office in London, was – at least from the tour operators' point of view – to explain their modus operandi and outline the economic benefits that British skiing brings to the French Alps.

What has prompted this encounter is a pair of forthcoming court cases. In late November, in the town of Albertville, two operators, Mark Warner and Meriski, are to be prosecuted for employment practices which, it is alleged, are contrary to French law. The cases have implications that are causing considerable concern among UK ski operators. They say – on the rare occasions that they will talk about the cases – that successful prosecutions would increase the cost of holidays in France for British skiers.

But beyond this threat is an even greater one, at least for UK companies operating chalets in French resorts. Those companies, in particular, are loathe to have attention drawn to next month's case for fear that their often uneasy relationship with French hoteliers might deteriorate. And that could encourage the hoteliers, in the event of a successful prosecution, to press for a change in the law relating to chalets.

Currently, chalets are treated as private premises, thereby escaping the demanding health and safety regulations that apply to recevants du public – ie, public places – such as hotels and bars. One expert in the field says that if chalets became subject to those regulations "probably only one out of 200 chalets in the Tarentaise area could meet them". Before the Chambéry meeting, a chalet operator not taking part said he hoped his colleagues would make clear that "if British skiers cannot stay in chalets in France they won't go to the hotels, they will go to a different country instead".

There is no doubt that under EU law France has the right to apply its own, national regulations – such as the "SMIC" minimum-wage provision, established in 1950, and the new 35-hour working week – to employment contracts. One UK ski operator has already been convicted, earlier this year, for paying its British employees below the SMIC minimum, which works out at about £4 per hour. However, most operators argue that their British employees – whose pay can be 50 per cent less than the SMIC – are "seconded staff", employed in the UK and sent to France according to a British contract; thus, they say, French employment law does not apply to them.

This is a highly technical matter, which is at the heart of the Meriski and Mark Warner cases: legal advice on it has already cost the latter company £30,000. Ultimately, the legality of secondment "really should be decided at a European level, because political and national issues are bound to influence any decision in a local court", says Edward Mannix, a Méribel-based consultant who deals with administrative issues for UK businesses in France.

But there are tax and social security matters, too. British operators argue that benefits such as free accommodation, food and ski-passes (which attract chalet staff to such badly paid jobs) would, if included in the calculation of income, put staff salaries above the SMIC level; but French law does not treat most of these benefits in kind as income. Anyway, SMIC may be only half the problem: according to Mannix, the social security provisions of a French employment contract would push labour costs for British operators up to about £8 per hour, "at which level the operations of UK ski companies in France would become dangerously uneconomic".

For all its technicalities, legal and administrative (the French employment-law code apparently runs to 1,862 pages), the argument over British employees in French ski resorts is really about money. The forthcoming cases concern alleged offences in Méribel, a resort created by a British skier – Colonel Peter Lindsay built its first lift in 1938. Its continuing popularity with British skiers is such that, according to the French newspaper Libération, UK companies currently produce 50 per cent of the resort's turnover. (It didn't give a figure for the turnover, but did point out that the local tax office, down in the valley at Moutiers, gathers more revenue than any other in France, apart from Paris.)

Understandably, local hoteliers are unhappy that such a large slice of Méribel's revenue goes into British pockets. Their spokesman, Claude Dallery, admitted that "the resort could not survive" without the British employers; but he explained to Libération why he regarded the competition as unfair. A washer-up in his hotels, he said, earned twice as much as a British worker; adding social security charges meant that it cost him up to £1,400 per month to employ that washer-up. "Multiply that for my 160 staff, and it's logical that the rooms in my three hotels cost Fr1,000-1,500. Hotels run by the English charge Fr800."

The local social-security collection office has clearly been swayed by this argument. One of its inspectors, Serge Lecapitaine, also talked to Libération about the "unfair competition" from British ski operators, "who take advantage of European legislation on the free movement of labour to pursue a commercial activity without paying social costs". Lecapitaine made a distinction between chalets, and public places where French people are also served (since it has a bar open to the public, Mark Warner's hotel in Méribel clearly falls into the second category); and as far as chalets are concerned he implied that the operator's argument that its staff are seconded from the UK might prevail.

Good news for chalets? Hardly. For if they are to be reclassified as recevants du public, as some operators fear they might, their legal status could be undermined along with their economic viability, threatening the future in France of that curiously British invention, the chalet holiday. Happily, one of the tour operators at the Chambéry meeting reported that: "It all went very well, with no antagonism. We all came away feeling very positive."

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