Reforming the reforms

Spain’s new leftist government has made its first amendment to the controversial labour laws introduced by Mariano Rajoy in 2012. Announced by labour minister Yolanda Díaz this week, the reform will make it less easy for companies to fire workers for taking sick leave and means that employees no longer have to fear for their jobs if they become unwell. Previously, an employee could be - and many were - fired for prolonged absence due to illness, even if they produced a note from their doctor. The PSOE-Podemos alliance, then, has done well to reverse a piece of legislation that was indifferent to workers’ welfare.

The reforms introduced by Rajoy at the height of the economic crisis were designed to make life easier and cheaper for companies, not to consolidate the stability or rights of employees. They were also backed last October by Spain’s Constitutional Court, which ruled that employers could sack ill workers even if they produced a medical note from their doctor. Rajoy’s 2012 reforms fitted businesses “like a glove”, as a spokesperson for CCOO, Spain’s largest labour union, said after the court announced its decision.

It should be noted that the government’s reversal of Rajoy’s policy has been made rapidly and almost covertly, without consultation with the business world. Yet this is precisely what was promised by Spain’s economy minister Nadia Calviño, who recently said that any attempts to roll back 2012 legislation will depend on input from companies. Perhaps the government didn’t bother consulting business for this tweak because it knew what the response would be. Indeed, one wonders whether the new administration will only consult on changes that are likely to go down well with companies.

Rajoy’s anti-sick-leave reforms always seemed anomalous in Spain, a country where work is regarded as just one of the important things in life, not THE most important. One’s job comes somewhere on the hierarchy of spending time with family and friends and having a good time, and not necessarily first. This is especially true in alegría-infused Andalucía, where there is always time for a caña, tapa and catch-up, regardless of whether it’s a Tuesday lunchtime or a Friday evening. The idea of toiling until you drop has never caught on here, as it has in some northern European countries and in the United States.

Despite this laid-back attitude, job security is still important. Unfortunately it remains a rare thing in Spain, with many workers on temporary contracts valid for just a few weeks or months. The country’s unemployment rate is around 14%, substantially reduced from a crisis peak of 27% but still the second-highest in the EU after Greece. Any attempt to constructively address either of these problems, such as the one announced by the government this week, should therefore be welcomed.