Can Spain take a European approach to the work-life balance?

Politicians agree the country’s timetables need overhauling. Do they have the will to do so?

Podemos politician Carolina Bescansa with her baby in Congress in January.
Podemos politician Carolina Bescansa with her baby in Congress in January.Uly Martín (EL PAÍS)

No matter who ends up in power, whether in coalition or alone, the next Spanish government looks set to roll out work-family policies promising a shorter, more flexible working week along European and US lines.

What is needed now, says Nuria Chinchilla, a human resources lecturer and head of the IESE business school’s International Center for Work and Family, is “the same political will and vision that saw the introduction of the anti-smoking law.”

Catalonia has progressed further than the rest of Spain in reforming the working week

Polls throughout Spain show that more flexible working hours are widely considered long overdue. Usúe Madinaveitia, one of the organizers of the social media campaign #mamiconcilia, says: “Politics should reflect society’s needs. It’s no longer taboo to admit you want things outside of work or that you are keen to spend time with your children.”

A director with an advertising agency until the birth of her son prompted an “invitation to leave,” Madinaveitia says successive labor policies have failed to take children into account. “As far as the politicians are concerned, reconciling the demands of family and work means the parents working longer hours while the children are parked somewhere,” she says.

Measures such as lengthening the school day and increasing the number of nurseries simply “create a system whereby parents don’t spend time with their children. Instead, it’s the grandparents or child minders who bring them up,” argues Madinaveitia, adding: “The child’s day ends up being longer than that of his or her parents’.”

Laura Baena, the founder of the website Club de Malasmadres (The Bad Mothers Club), which has some 170,000 followers on Facebook, describes policies until now as a “stopgap,” saying the issue doesn’t just affect moms and dads. “Some people are looking after an elderly person or have other dependents. And some people simply want to have time for their personal life. A long term solution has to take everyone into account.”

When it comes to work-family balance, Spaniards are fed up. New laws are not only an option, but an obligation PP spokesman Javier Maroto

Baena has managed to gather more than 289,000 signatures on campaign website Change.org demanding incentives for small companies to introduce an uninterrupted workday with a flexible schedule. While she welcomes acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s comments in early April about returning Spain to GMT and ending the working day at 6pm, she says he should also have talked about introducing more flexible working hours. “Flexibility is the key to reconciling work and family demands,” she says. “You can’t be straitjacketed by the need to be physically at your desk.”

Madinaveitia, who is now self-employed and shares domestic chores with her husband, agrees with Baena. “Flexibility is more important than the actual time you clock out. Your boss needs to understand that today something’s cropped up and you’ll be late but you’ll leave later – or not, because if you’ve finished what you need to get done, why be there?”

Usúe Madinaveitia, in her home in Madrid.
Usúe Madinaveitia, in her home in Madrid.Samuel Sánchez

Sadly, the culture of long hours at the desk, rather than a focus on productivity, has deep roots in Spanish companies. “In more progressive countries, it’s employees’ work, not their hours, that matters,” says Fabián Mohedano, who set up the Initiative to Reform the Working Week in Catalonia.

But Mohedano, who has just become deputy in the Catalan regional parliament for the Junts Pel Sí pro-independence party, is optimistic things are about to change. “The fact that Rajoy is talking about it means it will be dealt with in the next parliamentary session,” he insists.

“It’s a politically opportune moment [for change],” says José Luis Casero, president of the Association for Rationalizing Spanish Working Hours (Arhoe). “But Spaniards are used to not seeing things carried through to a working conclusion.”

Reasons to be skeptical

In 2013, a Congressional subcommittee nearly reached consensus on work-family policies, coming up with proposals similar to those now under discussion. But the Popular Party government did not put them before Congress. Nor did they implement increased paternity leave, from two to four weeks, that was approved in 2009. Moreover, despite the fact that a proposal was unanimously approved that would give fathers the right to take their partner’s leave after the birth of their child, no party ever brought it to the floor to be voted on. So why should anyone believe Congress now?

For one thing, says PP spokesman Javier Maroto: “When it comes to work-family balance, Spaniards are fed up. “New laws are not only an option, but an obligation.”

Carmen Montón, a member of the Socialist Party’ (PSOE) federal executive committee, defends her party’s track record on pushing for a more equitable work-life balance, but says more needs to be done. Clara Serra of anti-austerity group Podemos insists that “balancing work and family is at the heart of our manifesto because we put people’s needs first.” Antonio Roldán of emerging center-right group Ciudadanos confirms that the issue is key for his party.

Copying the Catalan model

Catalonia has progressed further than the rest of Spain in reforming the working week. Mohedano says an earlier start to the working day was introduced in the northeastern region three years ago through a series of pilot schemes, coupled with awareness-raising campaigns. He says further reform will be based on three main elements: “A general law touching on schedules and incentives for participating companies; pacts with the five main sectors – business, education, culture, the civil service and stores; and finally, public information campaigns.”

The idea is for a transitional phase to follow the introduction of legislation, as happened when Spain joined the euro or introduced anti-smoking legislation. “What I would say to Rajoy is that we need a cohesive plan,” says Mohedano. “For example, there’s no sense in completely liberalizing shopping hours without bringing forward prime time television.”

Your boss needs to understand that today something’s cropped up and you’ll be late but you’ll leave later – or not, because if you’ve finished what you need to get done, why be there? Usúe Madinaveitia, one of the organizers of the social media campaign #mamiconcilia

Reforming Spain’s working hours will require a major cultural shift, but so far no sector has come out against it. The head of Spain’s biggest employers’ confederation, the CEOE, cautiously welcomes a 6pm clock-out time: “It doesn’t have to happen from one day to the next, but if we have it as a goal… I think it’s possible and positive for everyone. We all want more free time.”

In theory at least, all Spain’s parties agree that an earlier finish to the day has to happen. “We should start work an hour earlier and get home earlier,” says Ciudadanos spokesperson Roldán, while the PP’s Maroto says it’s time to get used to a working day that ends at 6pm, although it will need the backing of employers and unions to make it work.

Nuria Chinchilla says this is essential: “Senior and middle management need to support reforms because they largely dictate business culture,” explaining that if bosses left earlier, took shorter lunch breaks or stopped scheduling meetings late in the afternoon, the rest of the workforce would follow suit. “The main challenge is changing ingrained habits,” she concludes.

Paternity Leave

Other work-family policies on the table include paternity leave, which is backed by Ciudadanos. The party has been credited with spearheading the drive for a balanced work and home life, their proposal to extend leave for fathers after their baby is born, which is supported by the PSOE, has been opposed by the Platform for Equal and Non-Transferable Leave for Births and Adoption (PPiiNA).

This is because while the proposal extends leave to 26 weeks and stipulates eight non-transferable weeks for the mother and eight for the father, the 10 remaining weeks can be taken by either parent. This latter portion of the proposal has been pounced upon by critics who believe mothers will inevitably take the outstanding weeks.

“Our goal is to make parental leave equally accessible to all employees, whether male or female,” says María Pazos, a PPiiNA spokesperson, estimating the cost of financing the objective at around €1.4 billion.

Roldán points out no other country in the EU has such an advanced policy. “Not even Sweden,” he says, adding: “there’s no hard evidence” to indicate that mothers usually takes any remaining parental leave.

But Spanish social security data undermines Roldán’s claim. While 87% as many fathers took paternity leave in 2015 as mothers, fathers took only 1.8% of the transferable leave.

The PP does not support extending paternity leave, despite voting in 2012 in favor of fathers having greater access to leave. But the party is suggesting 10 extra days for disabled fathers or fathers with disabled children.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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