Every seasonnaire in the Alps, past or present, has a horror story or two about grotty accommodation. Old chalets so run down that the most cheapskate of guests would sue at first sight, ‘six-bed’ apartments already overcrowded once two of you come home, mould-infested rooms housing six staff in a damp hotel basement with minimal to no heating. I once lived in an actual linen cupboard for several weeks, the plus point being that I had it to myself.
And it’s all fun and games until it isn’t, a point which we reached with a vengeance in Courchevel last week when the old Hotel Isba went up in flames taking two lives with it and leaving four seasonnaires seriously injured in Grenoble’s CHU, one of them a young woman of 24 who may not walk again after she jumped from her third floor bedroom window rather than burn with the building.
A Facebook appeal by parents Alain and Isabelle Corci for witnesses to the tragedy quickly turned up stories of overcrowding, locked fire exits and defunct fire extinguishers as well as claims that the building didn’t meet fire safety standards.
Now, this may or may not be true, and police and local authorities will obviously be investigating all such allegations, so I’m not about to comment on them. Latest news from France Bleu and other outlets seems to be that police are pursuing criminal investigations following evidence of accelerants in the burnt out parts of the building.
But if it turns out to be the case that the fire was started deliberately, there’s a risk that we don’t have the conversation that’s desperately needed – and has been for years – about the state of the accommodation that seasonal staff find themselves in.
We’ve all been there. The aforementioned linen cupboard in the Sporting in Serre Chevalier, along with the overcrowded third floor firetrap rooms in its sister hotel La Grange in Montgenevre, back in the day. The Savoie in Val d’Isere, which was more than up to scratch as far as fire safety was concerned, but unfortunately not entirely waterproof and rather lacking in heating and hot water. The Calabourdane in Val d’Isere, about which the less said the better, quite frankly. None of these still in use, thankfully, and several of them since demolished, but today’s accommodation isn’t significantly better.
It’s not just foreign tour ops either – the Isba’s residents were working for Courchevel’s Maison Tournier, which operates upmarket hotels there and in St Tropez. Some of the worst conditions I ever saw were in a 2Alpes hotel run at that point by a French operator – half a dozen young lads on mattresses on the floor of a basement room with no other furniture, no windows and no fire escape, a room we’d been using the previous season as an equipment store.
M Corci’s appeal for witnesses turned up a former resident who claims to have collected the keys to her accommodation at the beginning of her contract in December only to find that she was expected to share not only the nine square metre room but also the actual bed with a room mate she had never met. And on top of that, the radiators didn’t work, though I imagine that was the least of her worries at that point.
Employers have to be culpable in this, but at the same time the relevant authorities need to have a good hard look at planning policies in resort. It’s all very well building and expanding hotels, adding serviced apartment complexes, bunging in five star chalets and bigging up your resorts to new markets and well heeled punters, but some thought needs to be given to where you’re going to put the people who staff and service those accommodations, along with the army of lifties, ski instructors, restaurant staff and general dogsbodies who keep the whole thing running all winter.
Anyone involved in sourcing accommodation for staff, or who has tried to rent a place for the season will know exactly how hens teeth any kind of rudimentary shelter is in any of the major resorts, and the eye-watering amounts being charged for ‘apartments’ consisting of a bed and ….. err ….. well in some cases that’s about it. Which forces generally low paid seasonal staff into grottier and more overcrowded shit-holes every year, and pushes employers into breaking the rules in a bid to be able to offer accommodation, without which they struggle to recruit staff at all.
We need to be looking at real solutions – rent controls, decent seasonnaire hostels, free transport to and from valley towns (running at times when hospitality staff start and finish shifts) ….. whatever. And at the same time, there needs to be a lot more enforcement of existing norms and standards. When was the last time anyone saw an inspector in there objecting to the bunkbeds, the three people rammed into a space only legal for one, the single shower per dozen residents?
Any minute now, I’m going to get a raft of cynical resort and accommodation managers turn up in the comments to say how seasonnaires have no respect for their accommodation, leave it in a pigsty, party all night, wreck the place, blah etc. And we’ve all had to deal with that as well, skanky 18-year-olds who stockpile pizza crusts and refuse to change their bed linen all season (and worse, but that’s a post for another day). I know, they’re disgusting. But they’re also human beings, and people love them. Sometimes they even turn into the sort of pretty decent individuals that you wouldn’t mind spending time with. And even if they don’t, they still have a right to be treated with basic decency and respect, which includes supplying them with safe habitable accommodation. So before you make those comments, think about Ambre, who may not walk again; the three others still in hospital; the two who won’t make it home from their season. They didn’t deserve this.
Meantime, there’s a fund to which you can donate a few quid to help out the people who had to flee the Isba with nothing more than the pyjamas they were wearing at the time. Be generous – there but for the grace of God go all of us.