Increasing lack of protection for workers in Spain

While Spain is still immersed in the process of forming a new government, the recent events indicate that fresh elections are likely to happen in June if negotiations among parties failed to win the confidence of Spanish parliament. Left wing Podemos party rejected calls to join the coalition government of the Socialists (PSOE) with the centre-right Ciudadanos party due to core discrepancies in key matters like economy, and, in particular, labour legislation.

In the current political scenario, parties have put a wide range of proposals on the table to revert the consequences of the current labour reform, which came into force in 2012, but nothing has really materialised yet. The electoral programme presented by Podemos for the last general elections includes the repeal of the last two labour reforms and measures to strengthen the role of collective bargaining agreements. The document result of the coalition between PSOE and Ciudadanos includes a negotiation process with social partners for the adoption of a new Workers’ Statute. It also proposes two main types of contracts but the compensation for workers on permanent contracts in the event of wrongful dismissal and/or those made on the grounds of economic, technical, organisational or production issues, remains as it is now – 33 days per year worked -, not turning back to 45 days per year worked as it was before 2012.

The current labour reform was passed under the People’s Party (PP) leadership and came into force in February 2012. It was deep and damaging for the interest of workers in various aspects, including a severance pay reduction from 45 to 33 days per year worked for the wrongful dismissal of workers on permanent contracts. In terms of substantial changes in working conditions, the criteria by which employers could make full use of this practice were broadened. The salary amount was included among the causes that might be subject to substantial change and the period for notification was reduced.

Recent political reforms in the Spanish labour market

Labour legislation has been a sensitive issue for the subsequent governments in Spain since the approval of the Workers’ Statute in 1980. A report from Fundación 1º de Mayo, the centre of studies created by the Spanish trade union Confederation of Comisiones Obreras (CCOO), states that over the last 30 years, more than 50 reforms have been introduced in the labour market in Spain. Between 2001 and 2004 labour agreements lowered the cost of layoffs and included tougher conditions of access to employment benefits, but it was after the outbreak of the crisis in 2008 when the Spanish government, ignoring the voices from trade unions, ordered urgent measures to hold its public deficit and to reform the labour market. These measures implied a retake of the path to flexibility in the industrial relations, as well as of the benefits linked to social protection.

At the height of the financial crisis in 2010, the PSOE under the leadership of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero implemented a new labour reform. Its main objective was to lower the cost of laying off staff and to expedite recruitment. Under the new legislation, in the event of extinction of contract, workers would receive a lower termination payment by their companies. The selection criteria for redundancy were broadened, allowing ‘preventive dismissals’ based on foreseeable losses or a decline in the company turnover. The reform resulted in a general strike organised by the two biggest Spanish trade unions, which claimed that the measures approved were detrimental to interests of workers and weakened collective bargaining agreements.

Lack of social awareness and media underreporting of workers’ casualties

According to the Spanish National Institute for Safety and Health at Work, in 2014 there were 467 fatal accidents in workplaces in Spain. The incidence rate was increased by 2.8 per cent in 2014, reaching the rate of 3.4 deaths per 100,000 workers. The figure, that went quite unnoticed by Spanish media when it was released, also contrasts with the number of workers fatally injured in other EU countries like Great Britain, where the Annual Report of Health and Safety Executive states that 142 workers were fatally injured in 2014/15, corresponding to a rate of fatal injury of 0.46 deaths per 100,000 workers.

Vicenç Navarro, Professor of Political and Social Sciences at the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, and of Public Politics in the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US, argues that the lack of media attention to the high number of fatal accidents in the workplace in Spain reflects an enormous lack of sensitivity towards the working class people, who are the most discriminated social element in the country. To put this argument in context, Professor Navarro refers to the media coverage and public outcry from civil society and political actors to combat the gender violence against women (according to official data from the Spanish government, in 2014, 54 women were killed by men in the context of this violence). While public protests against this social scourge are applauded, Professor Navarro puts the focus on the violence against the world of work, which, despite being quite common in Spain, it is practically ignored by the media.

Summarising a recent report by the Spanish trade union Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) on the growth of accidents at work and mortality rate as a consequence of the labour reforms passed by the PSOE and PP parties, Professor Navarro emphasises the negative impact that those have had on the world of work. As indicated in the report, in 2015, the increase in fatal accidents was 4.8 per cent, a figure that had never been reached since the beginning of the century.

The above data have been underreported by the mainstream media and, therefore, are widely ignored by the general public. The enormous human cost of the austerity policies and labour reforms implemented by the PP and PSOE political parties have failed in improving the working conditions of the population. Despite politicians’ promises of economic recovery, data show the opposite in many areas, including workers’ protection. What recovery and economy are they talking about, then?

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