LOW-WAGE ECONOMY

From the jobless line to virtual slavery

Spain's tourism sector is having a good year, providing a boost to employment The bad news is that many of these posts are a pretext for exploitation

Tourists enjoy drinks and snacks at a terrace bar in Palma de Mallorca.
Tourists enjoy drinks and snacks at a terrace bar in Palma de Mallorca.TOLO RAMÓN

María P. did not know what she was getting into when she signed her work contract on June 20. After six months on the dole, this 42-year-old waitress found a job at a cafeteria in a pretty little village of 12,000 residents in the Galician province of Pontevedra. The pay was 500 euros a month, and the manager warned her that she would regularly have to stay "a little longer" than the 20 hours a week stipulated in her three-month contract.

In reality, she works nearly three times that, putting in extra time to do dishes, pile up the tables and wait on clients who stay beyond closing time.

"That's exploitation pure and simple," says this separated mother of two who makes ends meet thanks to financial support from her parents. María - whose prefers not to give her full name for obvious reasons - reported her situation to the Work Inspection department nearly two weeks ago. But so far, not one of the 981 inspectors and 897 subinspectors dispatched by the Labor Ministry this August to sniff out illegal situations have shown up at her workplace, a small company with six employees. "Where are our rights?" laments María.

Social Security records show that employment in the tourism sector grew 0.4 percent in July, in a welcome boost to employment in a country where almost six million are out of work. But María's case is not rare, according to union representatives consulted by this newspaper, who claim that the slight drop in the unemployment figures in July can be explained by the rise of seasonal summer jobs and the so-called "dejection effect," when long-term jobless people give up trying to find work.

The hotel with 33 interns

J. G.

When it emerged last week that over a third of the staff at a four-star, family-run hotel in Calvià (Mallorca) were interns, it unleashed a debate on the use of training contracts in the Balearic Islands. The controversy was not so much over the 33 interns" working conditions, which respected the stipulated schedules, but over the practice of replacing hospitality workers with cheap labor, using training needs as cover for exploitation. CCOO is investigating 50 other cases in Mallorca.

A seasoned work inspector from the Balearics who spoke on condition of anonymity talked about the loopholes in the control system. "They"ve got us inspecting beach bars and street markets instead of going after the hotels, where it is very common to find phony half-day contracts," he says, adding that he has never received "political instructions," however.

The unions are demanding that the Labor Ministry implement more efficient measures to fight fraud. They say that the 34 inspectors and 23 subinspectors who found 426 irregular situations in the Balearics in the first six months of the year are "insufficient."

"The problem is, some of [the inspectors] go away on vacation in August," complains Manuel Pelarda of UGT. Last year, this union reported the case of a five-star hotel in Pollensa that had 14 "phony interns" — Romanian apprentices who were making 350 euros a month for exhausting workdays.

And the backdrop to all this is precariousness. According to the unions, most of the new contracts are part-time "mini-jobs" that often conceal many more hours of real work.

July 2013 has turned into a record-breaking month in several ways: 7.9 million foreign tourists came to Spain, more than any other July. However, "it is the most precarious season, and most prone to abuse, that I know of," says Francisco Alejo, of the Extremadura branch of the CCOO labor union.

The exploitation typically comes to light when a victim files a complaint. Fear permitting, that is. In a country with 4.7 million people registered as looking for work, complaints are few and far between, and then only come towards the end of the season, in September.

The Labor Ministry admits that the hospitality industry is a major culprit in fraudulent, part-time hiring. But it will not issue an assessment on unions' claims that precariousness is on the rise until official figures are available. The latest data from the first half of the year show that 62,106 job inspections in the services sector resulted in 17,223 undeclared jobs coming to the fore.

The preferred vehicle for labor fraud by far, say the unions, is the fictitious half-day of work, while inspectors admit to the complexity of proving cases. A worker is paid - and contributes to Social Security - for four hours of work a day, even though he or she may actually put in three times as much time.

Daniel R., 37, considers himself lucky. He works up to 110 hours a week in the kitchen of a small family-run hotel in Pontedeume, also in Galicia. He makes 1,600 euros a month, twice as much as his 10 colleagues who were hired this summer. Although their contracts state that four hours a day are to be worked, they put in the same exhausting schedule as he does. "This year they're really taking advantage," says this chef with two decades' experience who is considering "escaping from the exploitation" and setting up his own restaurant. His employer owes him seven months' pay.

"This summer is unlike any other in terms of cases of workers putting in twice the regular working day," insists Isabel Castaño of CCOO.

The use of temporary and part-time contracts has shot up in Spain since the crisis began, representing one out of every three new jobs in July. In early August, the CEOE employers' association demanded a new twist to the government's labor reform to let employers turn some full-time contracts into part-time ones. But it insists that this initiative has "nothing to do" with encouraging precarious seasonal work, said sources at CEOE, which is seeking to distance itself from the abuse.

This summer is unlike any other in terms of workers putting in twice the hours"

Despite the risks that unions keep warning about, some scholars defend the system. "It's better than nothing. I support encouraging all methods of job creation that dignify people's labor, as opposed to this devastating unemployment," says Guillem López Casasnovas, a professor at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. "Let's hope that dignified pay will follow."

But his colleague Joaquín Maudos, a professor of economic analysis at Valencia University, is more critical. "For partial employment to be growing since 2008 should be a positive thing, if it is a consequence of sharing out the work. However, it is just another reflection of the tragedy of unemployment, together with the rise in youth joblessness and long-term unemployment," he says.

The list of cases of abuse is seemingly endless. CCOO Galicia is handling a complaint on behalf of a twentysomething who was fired from a cafeteria last week. He was working 15 hours a day Monday through Friday. On weekends he had to tend to his boss's farm. He complained about it and was promptly kicked out.

In the Balearic Islands, where 87 percent of all hiring is for temporary jobs, the unions have noticed that small hotel chains are subcontracting services. The goal is to bypass the sector's collective bargaining agreement and save up to 50 percent on labor costs. This way, the waitress who was earning 1,100 euros a month now makes 800. Another extended practice, according to the UGT union, is that of the false self-employed worker - employees who are pressured into leaving the staff but continue performing the same job, with the difference that they now pay their own social security.

Employees with full-time contracts are not safe from these practices, either. Pilar M., 34, put in 12-hour days at a small hotel in Granada. Her contract was for eight hours a day. Citing losses, the establishment fired her a month ago, even though the occupancy rate at the hotel was nearly 90 percent.

A million homemakers hunt for work

J. JIMÉNEZ GÁLVEZ

The day that 52-year-old Maica Pérez got a call to go back to work as a house cleaner, she didn"t think twice about it. Besides, it was in her own village, Artajona, a Navarrese municipality with just 1,700 registered residents. For the last three years she had been a homemaker and not actively looking for a job. This group has gotten smaller in Spain since the late 1970s, according to the Active Population Survey (EPA). But owing to the country"s deep economic crisis, the process is accelerating. Since early 2008, nearly one million homemakers have joined the job market.

It is a side effect of the financial hardship that many Spanish households are enduring. "That"s why many women have taken a step forward," notes Isabel Ávila, president of the Spanish Confederation of Homemakers, Consumers and Users (Ceaccu). The EPA figures reveal that since the crisis began, the number of homemakers has gone down from 4.51 million to 3.55 million.

By contrast, men are playing a completely different role in the situation. They are staying home and dropping out of the active population in growing numbers. The EPA shows that the ranks of stay-at-home men have swelled by 31 percent. According to second quarter figures for 2013, there were 355,100 male homemakers, as opposed to 270,400 in early 2008.

Almudena Fontecha, equality secretary for the labor union UGT, highlights that female labor has played this emergency role in all crises. "Despite the economic difficulties, they always expressed their desire to work. But now women want to keep working," she says. "The role of women has been essential to safeguard the household economy, which has been hit so hard by the recession," adds a report by Adecco, the human resources recruitment company.

"My decision to accept the job was influenced by economic reasons. It was almost an obligation. My husband also works, but there are a lot of expenses: the mortgage, the children"s schooling... we just couldn"t make ends meet," explains Maica, who has two children. The oldest one, 26, is a hairdresser and has already moved out. The youngest daughter is 20 and studying to be an electrical engineer at the Public University of Navarre. "The problem tends to be that the husband or the children have lost their jobs, or else their workday has been reduced. In this situation, the family member who has an easier time finding a job is the one to join the job market," adds Ávila.

This reduction in the numbers of female homemakers is a social trend that began with the end of the Franco regime and continued with the progressive incorporation of women into the job market. According to EPA statistics, there were 7.7 million homemakers in 1976. That number plummeted in 1987, then returned to a more moderate downward trend. Until the present crisis, that is.

The progressive presence of more young women on the job market has been a reality since the 1970s. "But the Dependents Law also provided great fishing grounds for female jobs," says Antonia Martos, head of the women"s issues department at CCOO.

Andalusia is the region where the trend is strongest. The autonomous community has lost 251,500 female homemakers (-28 percent) during the crisis, and this group now stands at around 667,300. "Many women feel a greater need to join the workforce. In June they represented 70 percent of new job applicants in Andalusia, especially youths and homemakers," says Martos.

Maica works 19 hours a week. She admits she was "lucky" in her job hunt. "The situation is really very difficult," she adds. The average homemaker who decides to look for work, explains Isabel Ávila, is over 45 and has little formal education. Both factors are great drawbacks.

"That is why women have accessed unqualified jobs," says the president of Ceaccu. "Especially in sewing and cleaning," adds Martos.