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The Popular Front government established this right in France just 80 years ago. In Spain paid holidays were not fully introduced until the 1960s
05.08.16 - 12:02 -

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The first paid holidays
In the woods. A family enjoys a meal amid the pine trees. Beside them, a Seat 600, the type of car in which many Spanish people travelled for their first holidays.:: R.C
You can imagine the reaction: “Be paid wages, even though you’re not working? That’s impossible. It would be sheer laziness!” Many of our grandparents could never have grasped the concept of holidays as we know them today. Their consciences, moulded over centuries by a primordial fight for survival, would have rendered them incapable of comprehending an idea such as that. Only the nobility lived without doing anything, they used to say. Everyone else had no choice, they had to go out and work if they wanted to eat.
Paid leisure time is a relatively recent phenomenon, no matter how hard it would be for us to conceive of a summer in which we did not receive our usual salary. “The first time people demanded paid leave,” says Francisco Javier Capistegui, professor of Contemporary History at the University of Navarra, “was in Germany in the mid-19th century, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that the idea really caught on.”
The bolshevik government which took power afterthe Russian revolution of 1917 was the first to introduce the right of workers to enjoy holidays. “It was a ‘right’ in name only,” says Capistegui, “because in reality it only applied to those who the party leaders thought should have a reward for their behaviour. Something similar occurred with the Nazis, who would later take power in Germany; they used a system of punishments and rewards in which holidays were used as a lure to gain the loyalty of the workers.”
In Spain, for centuries, the concept of leisure time was unknown to the vast majority of the population. Only the privileged classes knew the true meaning of the term “doing nothing.” It was from the 19th century onwards that the desire to enjoy free time at spa resorts or on beaches arose among the circles which were closest to power.
At the start of the new century the military, teachers and public employees had managed to obtain permits which allowed them to spend a few days away from their obligations. A law of 1918 gave all civil servants 15 days’ holiday. A year later another regulation gave naval captains and officers the right to enjoy a month’s paid holiday a year.
The new urban classes began to feel left out. Railway workers, typesetters, shop workers and bank employees began to demand the same benefits. With more pressing social demands already satisfied, paid holidays became the focus of attention.
Countries such as Austria, Finland, Sweden and Italy introduced this right into their legislation in one way or another in the 1920s. Spain followed suit in 1931, during the Second Republic, by approving the Law of Work Contracts, under which article 56 included seven days’ paid leave a year for all salaried workers. It was a pioneering rule but had little effect in a Spain which was largely agricultural, and the political convulsions which shook Manuel Azaña’s government impeded the stability needed for the urban classes to benefit from its introduction.
Music and dance in factories
In France, with a more diversified labour structure and much greater weight among the workforce in major industries, paid holidays were one of the strongest arguments in the elections of May 3, 1936. The resounding win by the Popular Front, which grouped together socialists and communists, brought an unprecedented euphoria which led to strikes and the occupation of factories. “They have gone down in history as ‘happy strikes’, because they took place in a festive atmosphere, with music and dancing in the workshops. They also resulted in great improvements in the living conditions of the working population,” explains Professor Capitegui.
The demonstrations were to demand a 40-hour working week, recognition of union representation and, of course, paid holidays. More than three million French people took part and the country came to a complete halt. The government, led by socialist Leon Blum, called representatives from the sector and the unions to the Matignon palace in Paris, and the agreements of the same name were drawn up, a model for the theory that democracy is the best way to resolve conflicts, not the authoritarianism of fascism and communism.
“The Matignon agreements are one of the starting points in the universalisation of labour rights and also of what we know today as the welfare state which defines Europe,” says Francisco Javier Capistegui.
The pact was ratified by the National Assembly and came into force on June 20, 1936. That same summer, tens of thousands of French workers enjoyed the first paid holidays of their lives, with an enthusiasm which was undoubtedly enhanced by an average salary rise of 15 per cent, which appears in the small print of the text. Leon Blum’s government made train tickets available at special prices (with a 40 per cent discount) and set up a network of hostels in beach and mountain areas.
That first summer, about 500,000 trips were paid for, and the following year, in August 1937, the figure doubled. This was the start of a new phenomenon, mass tourism: it became extraordinarily important for economic growth, but also as a form of cultural exchange.
The Matignon pact ended up being known as the law of paid holidays. Initially, these were two weeks, which were extended to three in 1956 and to four weeks in 1968. A fifth week was an electoral promise by socialist François Mitterrand, and it became reality in 1982, a year after he was elected president. When WW2 was over, the Matignon agreement became a benchmark when regulating rights for workers. Social democracy, which inspired labour relations in a good many European countries when economies took off again in the post-war period, had its foundations in that same pact.
The slavery of the countryside
Spain recognised the right to paid holidays in the ‘Fuero del Trabajo’ (1938) issued by Franco’s government before the end of the Civil War. It did not stipulate the length of time for holidays and the country, fractured and impoverished, was in no condition to start a debate about days of rest. Later legislative developments gradually marked the limits of holiday periods until the present Workers’ Statute came into force, establishing a minimum of 30 calendar days.
Summer holidays, as we know them today, are a result of the development of tourism in the 1960s, a time when industry and the services sector employed tens of thousands of Spanish workers who until then had only known the slavery of working in the countryside. Economic growth and the arrival of tourism in places such as Torremolinos and Benidorm –which injected vast sums of foreign currency into the public coffers - led Franco to emulate neighbouring countries and introduce paid holidays for Spanish workers.
Days of leisure which are recognised by law are one of the pillars of the framework of the welfare state which began in Europe in the last century, and is now under threat from neoliberal cutbacks. The legislation of countries such as the US, for example, does not include paid holidays. On the other side of the Atlantic these are seen as something to be negotiated between the company and the employee. This dynamic often results in new employees ending up with no time off: they are told that this will be discussed when they are consolidated within the company, in a few years’ time. Statistics show that four out of every ten American workers do not have paid holidays and those who do only have, on average, ten days a year. It also seems that nobody has much interest in improving things.

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