Lina Gálvez – Spain: The rise of precarious labour

EU Politics Section Logo

Spanish companies are clocking up profits and dividends at the expense of their workforce, especially young Spaniards, as well as to the detriment of society. No wonder young graduates are going for less glamourous jobs, where they can find them.

Lina Gálvez is Professor of Economic History and Gender Studies at Pablo de Olavide University, Seville

Cross-posted from



Last night, while I was having a beer in a bar, a waiter recognised me. He had been a student of mine a few years ago in the bachelor’s programme in business management and administration. I’m always happy to see an old pupil, but I admit that I felt a certain distress when I saw that he was working as a waiter ten years after graduating. It’s not that I find the profession as a waiter undignified; it just didn’t fit his background, or possibly the expectations he or his parents had when he was studying for his degree.

When I spoke to him I discovered that, at the conclusion of his studies, he had followed in the footsteps of most of his classmates and started work in a financial institution. Then he went to another, and then….. he couldn’t do it anymore. He told me that the hours, the way he was treated, and the salary were worse than in his current job as a waiter.

When I shared this experience with a friend she told me a similar story: on the bus to the airport the other day she discovered that the bus driver was an old student of hers. She had started work in a bank but simply could not stand it. Working conditions at the municipal transport company in Seville seemed to her much more dignified.

Another friend told me that her niece graduated from nursing school and, after a year of temporary contracts limited to a few days – yet having to take responsibility for what might happen to patients – she decided to return to an Ikea restaurant where she prepares meatballs. To her, Ikea was a better employer than the hospitals she had worked for.

Statistics can never accurately reflect the details of real life, but they can help us to understand the widespread deterioration of the Spanish labour market and the reason for the frustration of these young people and possibly the consequences of certain policy choices.

Wages in many sectors dropped dramatically during the financial crisis, but 2016 saw the first decrease in average wages in Spain for a decade:  1,878 euros, a 0.8% decrease compared with 2015. This has not affected all workers equally but has especially hit young people, because of the poorer contracts associated with new jobs: trades unions have been weakened by lower membership, and labour relations have become more of an individual responsibility.

At the same time highly-paid employees, including directors of the 35 top-listed Spanish companies,  – who are largely responsible for the new labour relations model imposed on the market – have seen their remuneration increase.

We continue to have extremely high levels of unemployment especially among young people – 36% for those under 25, according to official Labour Force Survey data from the third quarter of 2017. That forces many people to accept poorer contracts, wages, and working conditions. Today it is not unusual to have a job that does not provide enough income to live on – which has resulted in poverty and social exclusion for 27.9% of the Spanish population: four percentage points above the EU average.

The largest increase has been seen in jobs that are temporary and in many cases part-time although, according to the trade unions, the working day in these cases can stretch to 10 hours or even 12, especially in the hotel and catering business. However, the 11.85% increase in the consumer price index between 2008 and 2016 shows that even full-time workers have lost an average of 2.34% in purchasing power – 13.5% among the lowest paid.

Young and educated people are emigrating because job opportunities in Spain don’t meet their expectations. This also implies a loss of public spending on training which does not benefit the Spanish labour market.

Despite these depressing figures the Spanish economy grew by 3.2% in 2016 and so did corporate profits. Since 2008 Spanish companies have reduced their input to GDP by 9.8 billion euros, paid 32.2 billion euros less in labour costs and distributed an additional 20.9 billion euros in dividends.

So if we have growth and an increase in business profits, but a slow decline in unemployment – especially among young people – and downward pressure on wages – especially in new contracts – it is not surprising that we find stories such as those at the beginning of this article. What is surprising is that with these ingredients, the political situation in Spain has not deteriorated faster. Some sort of escape valve must be found to relieve the existential pressure on hundreds of thousands of young people (and their families) who are unemployed, or employed in sectors for which they are overqualified, or in sectors with greater social prestige such as banking, but where they are mercilessly exploited in order to pay the million-dollar salaries of their directors and to pay dividends to their shareholders.

This is the perfect breeding ground for populist and xenophobic political movements that promise to guarantee the well-being of a social group or a territory, regardless of the values, proof or solidity of the arguments they put forward.

I hope that 2018 will bring us less inequality, more dignity, more hope, and better working and living conditions than did 2017 and the years of crisis before it.


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.