The demand for higher wages and shorter hours marks May Day

The demand for higher wages and shorter hours marks May Day
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When the first demonstration for International Workers’ Day was held in Spain, one of the main demands of the working class was the limitation of the working day to eight hours a day. It was 1890. This Wednesday, 144 years later, many things have changed since those endless tasks, with hours that exceeded double digits. However, the country has not experienced a reduction in working time since 1982. The Government has committed to applying it and the social agents are negotiating how to reduce it from the current 40 to the maximum 37.5 hours per week. The unions have made this demand one of their strong points for this May Day: “For full employment: less working hours, better salaries.”

The country reaches this day with some data to celebrate. Membership in Social Security is at an all-time high, with almost 21 million members. Temporary employment marks its lowest figure, with 12.7% of contracts. The Spanish economy consolidates its growth, with an increase of 0.7% of GDP. The Euribor has experienced its first year-on-year decline this month in this monetary cycle. And the number of unemployed is at pre-2008 levels, before the outbreak of the financial crisis. However, the unions are not satisfied. “The country cannot resign itself to unemployment rates above 10%,” the general secretary of the Workers’ Commissions, Unai Sordo, explained to this medium. According to the latest data from the Active Population Survey (EPA), in the first quarter of 2024 it stood at 12.3%.

Rachida is 52 years old and lives in Ceuta, where 29% of the population is unemployed. Her claim coincides with that of this Wednesday —it is the second worst figure in Spain, after Melilla’s 32.4%. “I’m waiting to see if something comes of it, because the situation is extreme,” says the woman, who has looked for employment “by all means, by posting resumes, by word of mouth, wherever.” With two children in her care, one who has left the autonomous city, her eldest daughter employed by her after four years and her husband also unemployed, she regrets that in the autonomous city there is no “a lot of opportunities”.

Determined to find a job, Rachida explains that she doesn’t like to be stationary. After four months in a call center, where she was fired along with other colleagues without prior notice, she is now training as an administrative assistant, in a public service course financed by European funds. “They tell you that you have internships, but it depends on the companies,” she is suspicious about her future. Precisely, this Tuesday the Council of Ministers approved the new regulation that regulates the common portfolio that guarantees public employment services for unemployed people. “It is a paradigm shift,” said the Minister of Labor, Yolanda Díaz, who called for mobilization in the streets this Wednesday. The Minister of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration, Elma Saiz, has also announced that she will attend the march that will travel along Gran Vía to Plaza de España in Madrid.

Specifically, unemployed people will have the right to more personalized attention, with a diagnosis of their specific case and an established itinerary until the goal of employment. It is something that already happens in communities like Euskadi and that aims to solve a deficiency in the Spanish public employment service. “In other communities, you go to the office, and if it can be done electronically, much better, and that’s it. Time passes and no one remembers you,” explained the general secretary of UGT, Pepe Álvarez, in an interview with elDiario.es.

“Work less so that more people work”

If full employment is an objective shared by Commissions and UGT, so is the reduction in working hours that will act, according to the unions, as a lever. “You have to work fewer hours so that more people work,” said Álvarez, this Monday during an event in Atocha, where they have demanded an end to “long and exhausting” days. Reducing the maximum legal working time to 37.5 hours by 2025, without entailing a reduction in salary, is a commitment of the coalition government between PSOE and Sumar, for which employers and unions have been negotiating for months. Although the intermediate step, at 38.5 hours throughout 2024, seems already ruled out, the unions are optimistic about reaching a consensus with the CEOE for the final objective.

Díaz indicated this Tuesday that the Executive’s plan is to make progress “in these months.” Specifically, the second vice president wants to be ready “before the summer.” And it will be done with or without employers. “We are waiting for a very suggestive debate that the Spanish employers’ association always has, about whether it wants to be part of that agreement or not,” he warned because although he would “like it to be tripartite,” if it is not, he will agree to it with unions.

Some companies, however, have already begun to test different pilot experiences to test reductions in working hours greater than what is negotiated or even the four-day work week. The most relevant project in this sense was launched, at the end of 2022, by the extinct Botànic Pact, which demonstrated that it improves the health of workers, reduces their stress and has no impact on business productivity.

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Although the new Valencian Government, of PP and Vox, has eliminated this aid, in some companies this new organizational policy is here to stay. Abel is 40 years old and works in a consultancy in a small town in Valencia, which took advantage of the Generalitat program in December 2022. “It’s amazing,” he explains about the change that has come with going to work 32 hours a week. , without this implying a decrease in the payroll. “Before, you got up to go to work and went to bed when you left work, because, if you don’t put an end to it, they could call you until 8 at night,” he explains. He now leaves, Monday to Thursday, at five in the afternoon and on Fridays, at one. “You can do everything, you don’t have to take an afternoon to go to the dentist or go shopping on the weekend because the stores are open when you leave,” he gives as an example.

The productivity of this company, with three employees, has not fallen. On the contrary, “we bill more in 2023 than in 2022,” they clarify. The good economic results have been accompanied by an improvement in the quality of life of its workers. Jovanna is 47 years old and has two children, ages 11 and 6. “I can take them and pick them up from school, accompany them to extracurricular activities and help them with their homework,” she explains. The situation has improved compared to 2022. “Before, my husband and I took turns at work or we would take care of the grandparents or ask for a favor, have someone pick them up for you, or leave earlier and stay longer the next day,” she points out.

The Ministry of Industry also showed its interest in testing the four-day week, but not so much the sector. In May 2023, it announced that only 41 companies had requested aid for the project with which it wanted to improve the productivity of SMEs by reducing the working day. To date, this plan has not yet been launched, which was intended to make a “reliable evaluation that can be extrapolated to all small and medium-sized companies in the industrial sector.”

Salaries to be “a real world person”

The third leg of the demand that will bring out thousands of people this May 1, in more than 80 demonstrations in several Spanish cities, is the improvement of salaries. With inflation rates skyrocketing in 2023 and after the signing of the V Agreement for Employment and Collective Bargaining, this has allowed the year to end with “improvements from the point of view of purchasing power and the trend in 2024 is in the same direction,” Álvarez said a few weeks ago, when he also congratulated himself on the fact that the salary review clauses are being recovered.

The objective of the unions is to not stop this momentum, which has been seen more clearly in those workers who earn the least. The minimum wage has increased by 54% since 2018, with the arrival of the coalition government between the PSOE and Unidas Podemos first and with Sumar later, from 735 to 1,134 euros per month. In view of the negotiation for a new increase for 2025, which the Minister of Labor Yolanda Díaz has already announced will begin after the summer, both UGT and CCOO have indicated that their minimum objective is for this to be 60% of the Average salary. That is, about 1,293 euros.

Ana is the clear example of what this increase in the SMI has meant. She lives in A Coruña and began working as an administrator in the Workers’ in May 2016, part-time. “I entered the working world quite late, at 50 years old and with my (three) older children, due to economic necessity. They started to go to university and my partner’s salary was just right,” she explains. At that time, for that half-day she earned about 370 euros in 14 payments. In 2018, the organization’s needs increased and she accepted a full-time contract, also for the minimum wage.

In the last six years, Ana has experienced this increase in her payroll year after year. “The rise from 2018 to 2019 was tremendous, 150 euros at once in salaries like ours, accustomed to small economies but a lot of effort. Reaching 1,000 euros was overcoming a psychological barrier. And the feeling of going from 1,000 to 1,080 was perhaps no longer as economic as starting to think that you are a person in the real world,” she explains. In her case, this increase also meant a boost to her husband’s professional career.

He is a civil servant and, although he had obtained an A2 position, he worked in a lower category, but better financially, in which he could not advance. With the relief that came with the increase in income at home, he was able to change positions and, although at first he earned a little less, this allowed him to gradually improve his remuneration. “My work was also worth it for him to rise. Furthermore, two of our three children are already financially independent men and our economic situation is different. It has gone very well for us,” he acknowledges.

The days leading up to this May Day have been marked by the decision of the President of the Government to take a few days of reflection to decide whether to continue in the Moncloa, first, and to continue, later. Neither Álvarez nor Sordo have avoided speaking out, asking Pedro Sánchez not to give in to what they consider powers that do not accept the electoral results. Against this background, the unions have also combined the defense of democracy with demands for full employment, higher wages and shorter working hours. The message that Álvarez sent, this same Tuesday, was clear: “Citizens have more reason to go to the May 1 demonstration today than this Saturday.”

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