The European Union is considering tweaking its rules regarding "mobile workers." (See related story, "E.U. operators mull regulations for tour managers, guides.") Why, you may reasonably ask, should you care?

The regulations in question require tour bus drivers to take an uninterrupted break of not less than 45 minutes after driving four-and-a-half hours straight and to drive no more than nine hours a day and 56 hours per week.

Though these rules are currently only enforced for motorcoach drivers, there is concern among European tour operators that these limitations might also be extended to tour managers (escorts). And if that happens, tour operators would likely need to hire two escorts to cover a job that today requires only one. That has obvious undesirable economic consequences for operators.

Tom Jenkins, executive director of the European Tour Operators Association, suggested to ETOA members attending the Global European Marketplace in London last week that they might deflect such requirements by ensuring that their tour managers are contractors rather than employees, because tour operators wouldn't be responsible for the schedules of self-employed tour managers.

During the ETOA meeting, I happened to have a conversation with a niche tour wholesaler who had formerly worked as both an employed and independent tour manager, and he described in detail some unintended -- and undesirable -- consequences that can occur when tour managers become independent.

The man, who did not want his name or the names of the companies for which he worked published, said he behaved differently depending upon whether he was a contractor or an employee. He then revealed some "dirty little secrets."

In his words:

"For [a large, well-known operator], I was not an employee but a self-employed tour manager. I would essentially have to buy the tour from the company -- they required me to pay a levy for every passenger, and the levy just happened to equal the fee they paid me to manage the tour. As a result, I was totally dependent upon tips and selling optional tours to make any money at all.

"The tipping was very good from Americans, but not from the Australians or Europeans, so selling the optionals was very important. Here's how I'd work it: We'd leave London for the [English Channel] port. I was the best guide in the world at that point, very helpful, everyone's best friend.

"When we arrived in France, we'd get on the coach and I'd say, 'France is really a great country, but there are some problems. There are language difficulties, of course, and the money is different,' things like that. Then we'd stop in some town along the way and I'd let them out. I would make myself scarce. I'd let them struggle with everything.

"When they got back on the coach, I asked how they liked France. Generally speaking, nobody had a good time. I then told them that they might consider taking optional excursions when we stop, and that I could help them with that. Even if they didn't sign up right away, they'd later find that our hotel was often in an inconvenient location, and that it would be difficult to see things on their own.

"I didn't like working for that company. They didn't train me to do what I did, but I soon learned from their other tour managers that it was the only way to make money. What bothered me was that the low price of the tour didn't really reflect what the guest ended up paying."

Of course, not all independent contractors work this way. But if it turns out that the possible changes in E.U. regulation enforcement leads to more tour managers of this stripe, the ironies would begin to pile up. Regulators who intend to protect tour manager employees would instead motivate tour operators to terminate their employment and work only with contractors.

Consumers thinking they're saving money by purchasing low-priced tours would end up spending as much, or more, than if they had simply purchased higher-priced, more inclusive tours.

And, in order to compete economically, tour operators that may genuinely care about both guest experience and their employees would have to consider models that might serve neither well. American travel agents, too, may come up short. There's no commission on midtrip add-ons -- add-ons that might be included in a higher-priced tour where managers are employees.

So, to bring things full circle: In today's global marketplace, it turns out there are plenty of reasons to care when the E.U. tweaks seemingly obscure rules regarding mobile workers. In this case everyone, it seems, has something to lose.

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