New laws: How Spain plans to empower its precarious workers

Spain’s government has announced labour reforms that are set to come into force in 2022. The proposals include protections for temporary workers, severance pay, retraining funds and a whole host of other measures designed to lessen precarious work in Spain. 

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A quarter of jobs in Spain are temporary, most of them in services. Photo: Gabriel BOUYS / AFP. Photo: JAIME REINA / AFP

In a bid to unpick legislation from the previous government, satisfy EU demands, lead economic recovery post-pandemic, and try and rebalance the relationship between workers and employees, Spain’s coalition government has decided to take action at a time when La Moncloa has been mainly focused on handling the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The long awaited labour reform was announced by the PSOE-led coalition government last Thursday following a deal made with unions and employers. The changes are now set to be approved in the Spanish Parliament on Tuesday December 28th.

Spain’s Second Deputy Prime Minister and Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz led the reforms. According to the member of hard-left party Podemos, the reforms​​ will bring Spaniards great “stability and security in employment” and represent “the beginning of the end of labour market anomalies involving temporary and precarious work.”

Spain’s temporary work problems

One of the major flagship reforms agreed by government, major unions, and employers, are changes to the nature of temporary contacts in Spain.

In order to try to rectify the prevalence of temporary jobs in the labour market (over 26 percent, according to the latest figures) and avoid the more exploitative elements of the practice, two newly defined types of temporary contracts have been established: structural and training. 

Structural temporary contracts are acceptable to deal with “the occasional and unpredictable increase that, even in the case of normal activity of the company, generates a temporary mismatch between the stable employment available and that required.” Obvious examples of situations like this include Christmas or seasonal agricultural work, but the new reforms formalise this long standing practice by requiring employers to “formalize contracts for production circumstances to attend occasional, foreseeable situations that have a reduced duration.” 

Temporary workers may be hired to fill the same position, but for a maximum of 90 days a year and not consecutively, as is often the case for large employers trying to save on costs who effectively employ temporary workers full-time but don’t recognise their pay or protection as such.

Likewise, in the last quarter of each year, companies must give workers some kind of forecast of what type and how much work they will need for the coming year. Structural temporary hires are also allowed to cover another worker, the duration of which may be extended until they return to their position.

On the new temporary training contracts, temporary hires are allowed in alternation, meaning in situations that include both elements of work and training, but are only available to employees up to 30 years of age – a measure surely designed to try and redress Spain’s high youth unemployment rate – during the three years following the conclusion of their studies, and which must be supervised by a tutor or boss of some description. The minimum contact will be three months, extendable up to a maximum of two years.

Fixed-discontinuous contracts

To try and further clamp down on exploitative practices in seasonal work, the reforms introduce a ‘fixed-discontinuous contract’ for “carrying out work of a seasonal nature or linked to seasonal productive activities.”

A contrato fijo discontinuo, as the name suggests, is a type of contract with no set end date but that isn’t carried out throughout the whole year and it is often meant for seasonal work.

In order to fill vacancies, employers must now send the workers proposed schedules for the entire year, including the type and duration of work, among other points, at the beginning of each fiscal year.

This move aims to end some of the unpredictability and exploitative power dynamic between employers and temporary workers that was typical of the previous labour reforms approved by the Rajoy government back in 2012, and will provide workers with more consistent work throughout the year. Crucially, it will give workers a better idea of when, where, and for how long it will be.

No limits to ultra-activity

One of the most controversial elements of the PP reforms from a decade ago was the limitation of ‘ultra-activity’ (the period during which an expired agreement remains in force while its renewal is being negotiated) to one year.

This was a key issue in the recent metalworkers strikes in the southern city of Cádiz because with this time limit, workers saw their bargaining position weakened, and if negotiations extended beyond that year, the previous agreement that had been regulating their activity became invalidated.

Last week’s reforms remove the time-limit and the validity of previous agreements will now be maintained for the duration of negotiations, levelling the playing field in collective bargaining agreements. 

RED Mechanism to avoid layoffs

The RED Mechanism for Employment Flexibility and Stabilisation will be used to support workers employed by companies that reduce working hours and suspend work contracts.

There will be two types of support: the cyclical (when changes to work or incomes requires “additional stabilisation instruments”), which will last for one year; and the sectorial (when more permanent changes to work on pay conditions “generate the need for retraining and professional transition processes of the workers”) which will also last for a year with the possibility to extend twice by six months.

Combating abuses by subcontractors

A new regulatory framework between contractors and subcontractors has changed the existing power dynamic, under which the agreements of contracting companies allowed them to lower wages to compete with each other. In addition, an employee’s main contractor will now be “jointly and severally” liable during the three years following the termination of work “for the Social Security obligations contracted by the contractors and subcontractors during the term of the contract.”

In the case of a reduction in hours, pay, or the complete termination of employment contracts, all decisions “must be accompanied by a plan for the retraining of the persons affected” and the worker would receive financial help during the period of lost work.

The money for the RED Fund for the Sustainability of Employment will come from the “surplus income which finances unemployment benefits, the contributions which are included in the General State Budget, and contributions from the European Union financing instruments aimed at fulfilling the object and purposes of the Fund.” 

Not only did many in and out of government feel these changes were long overdue, and that Spain’s labour relations had been imbalanced since the PP reforms of a decade ago, but in order to receive €70 billion of funds as part of the EU’s coronavirus recovery plan, the European Commission had given Madrid a deadline of December 31st conditional on reaching an agreement on the reforms. 

That there was external political pressure – with an underlying financial incentive – to get these reforms approved by the end of the calendar year certainly played a role, but so too did Spain’s precarious domestic labour market.

With a national unemployment rate of over 14 percent (up to 25 percent in certain regions) and a quarter of employees are on temporary contracts, ​​Díaz and the coalition government were keen to unpick the PP reforms and rebalance what is widely perceived to be an unfair, exploitative, and unproductive labour model.

Article by Conor Faulkner

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Spanish government divided over proposed menstruation leave bill

Talk of abortion policy reform and proposed menstrual leave has dominated Spanish discourse this week, but it’s also dividing Spain’s coalition government.

Spanish government divided over proposed menstruation leave bill

Spain’s PSOE-fronted coalition government recently outlined proposals that have dominated public discourse in the country.

But the legislation, which would allow women over the age of 16 to get abortions without the permission of their parents and introduce ‘menstruation leave’ for those suffering serious period pains, has not only divided Spanish society but the government itself.

The proposals would make Spain a leader in the Western world, and the first European Union member state to introduce menstrual leave, and changes to abortion law would overturn a 2015 law passed by the conservative People’s Party that forced women aged 16 and 17 to obtain parental consent.

The wide-ranging bill would also end VAT on menstrual products, increase the free distribution of them in schools, and allow between three and five days of leave each month for women who experience particularly painful periods.

READ MORE: What are Spain’s abortion laws for foreign residents and visitors?

Menstrual leave

Ángela Rodríguez, the Secretary of State for Equality, told Spanish newspaper El Periódico in March that “it’s important to be clear about what a painful period is – we’re not talking about slight discomfort, but about serious symptoms such as diarrhoea, fever and bad headaches.”

“When there’s a problem that can’t be solved medically, we think it’s very sensible to have temporary sick leave,” she added.

Cabinet politics

The proposals are slated for approval in cabinet next week, and judging by reports in the Spanish media this week, it is far from reaching a consensus. It is believed the intra-cabinet tensions stem not from the changes to abortion and contraception accessibility, but rather the proposed menstrual leave.

The junior coalition partner in government, Podemos, largely supports the bill, but it is believed some in the PSOE ranks are more sceptical about the symbolism and employment effects of the proposed period pain policy.

Vice President and Minister of Economic Affairs, Nadia Calviño, said this week: “Let me repeat it very clearly: this government believes and is absolutely committed to gender equality and we will never adopt measures that may result in a stigmatisation of women.”

Yet Second Vice President and Minister of Labour, Yolanda Díaz, who is viewed as further to the left than President Pedro Sánchez and other PSOE cabinet ministers, is reportedly “absolutely in favour” of the measure to reform Spain’s “deeply masculinised” labour market.

Sources in the Spanish media have this week also reported that some PSOE cabinet ministers feel the proposed paid leave not only plays up to stereotypes of women, or stigmatises them, like Calviño says, but also places them at a disadvantage in the world of work.

Minister of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration, José Luis Escrivá, stated that while the government should seek to improve women’s employment protections, it should also seek to boost their participation in the labour market under “better conditions.”

In that vein, some feel menstrual leave could be used a form of of employment discrimination similarly to how pregnancy has been historically, and the policy would, in that sense, actually be more regressive than progressive in enshrining women’s workplace rights. 

READ MORE: Spain eyes free contraception for under-25’s

Trade unions

Trade unions are also sceptical of the menstrual leave legislation. Cristina Antoñanzas, deputy secretary of UGT, one of Spain’s largest trade unions, has echoed those in the cabinet who feel the proposals could “stigmatise women.” She added that “it does women a disservice.”

Public opinion

A survey run by INTIMINA found that 67 percent of Spanish women are in favour of regulating menstrual leave, but also that 75 percent fear it is “a double-edged sword” that could generate labor discrimination.

The survey also found that 88 percent of women who suffer from disabling and frequent period pain have gone to work despite it. Seventy-one percent admitted that they have normalised working with pain.

Cabinet showdown

The proposed menstrual leave policy will be debated in cabinet next week when the Council of Ministers debates and approves the broader abortion and contraception reforms. According to sources in the Spanish media, and many cabinet ministers themselves, it seems a consensus on menstruation leave is a long way off.