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From May Day to Labor Day, GlobalPost explores the human cost of what's been called a "race to the bottom." The hyper-accelerated movement of capital, jobs and resources from the world's corporations — manufacturing, agriculture and service — to the lowest bidder. In an era of diminished expectations, broken promises and sleight of hand, these are labor stories of governments, employers, unions and workers. 

Spain May Day labor protest
Thousands of people protest against the economic policies of the Spanish government during May Day demonstrations in the center of Madrid on May 1, 2012. Protesters massed across the country, venting anger over austerity, job reforms and an unemployment rate topping 24 percent. (Dani Pozo/AFP/Getty Images)

Spain divided as labor rights erode

Workers blast new reform as dangerous and ineffective, while employers want the country to be more competitive.

MADRID, Spain — When Mariano Castellanos looks back on the 45 years he has worked in restaurants across the length and breadth of Spain, he is amazed and saddened at how the profession’s prestige has been eroded.

“When I started out, any mother would have been happy for their daughter to marry a waiter,” he says, speaking at the back of the restaurant in central Madrid where he is maitre d’. Castellanos, 58, a stocky, jovial man, with a quickness of thought honed by decades on the job, remembers how common it was a couple of decades ago to find good waiters who combined cordiality, calmness, efficiency and the intelligence needed to read a client’s mind — all appealing traits to a potential mother-in-law.

Spain’s army of one million waiters serve 230,000 bars and restaurants, according to the country’s association of waiters, AMYCE, which Castellanos led for more than a decade. With food and drink so integral to Spain’s culture and services so important to its economy, waiters play a key role in society. But, Castellanos explains, the relative drop in the profession’s wages, its unforgiving hours and the lack of opportunities to rise up through the ranks have undermined its social cache. And in many respects, the devaluation of waiting is representative of much broader changes in the Spanish labor market.

“A lot of waiters nowadays are embarrassed to even admit they are waiters,” Castellanos sighs. “On average they barely earn about 1,100 euros ($1,450) per month.”

In February, a new chapter was added to Spain’s complex history of labor rights, when the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy unveiled a sweeping labor reform. Its intention was to make the labor market more flexible and competitive and, in the longer term, to help bring under control Spain’s soaring unemployment rate, which at over 24 percent is the highest in Europe. Its youth unemployment rate is above 50 percent.

“The Spanish labor market is a jungle.”
~Pedro Schwartz, economist at San Pablo University

Rajoy called the legislation “just, necessary and good for the country … the reform that five million unemployed were waiting for.”

With its emphasis on flexibility and making hiring and firing easier, the reform has been welcomed by business leaders, who have long seen the Spanish labor market as archaic and rigid. They also believe that new measures such as allowing companies to reduce salaries unilaterally after a prolonged period of losses, or to lay off staff for the same reason, are logical.

“We cannot keep the rules of the seventies, rules that were made 40 years ago when the Spanish economy was a closed economy, didn’t belong to the European Union and was not in the middle of a globalized market as we have today,” said Alberto Nadal, of the CEOE, Spain’s main employers’ association. “We have to adapt legislation to make it more flexible.”

But many Spaniards believe the legislation went too far. On March 29, unions led a general strike against the reform, which they are still pressuring the government to alter or withdraw.

Mariano Castellanos in front of his Madrid restaurant.

(Guy Hedgecoe/GlobalPost)

In a May Day statement, International Labour Organization Director-General Juan Somavia said, “When youth unemployment rates hover around 50 percent in Spain and Greece, it is obvious that we have reached the limits of this austerity-induced recession. We need a socially-responsible approach to fiscal consolidation. In a democracy, it is more important to retain the long-term trust of people — especially the most vulnerable groups — than to gain the short-term confidence of financial markets.”

Castellanos says this reform follows a trend of declining workers’ rights in Spain, particularly since the 1990s. As Spain modernized, its economy thrived toward the end of the decade. With a real estate bubble driving the boom, Castellanos watched many young waiters drift away from his sector.

“Wages — in catering and many other sectors — couldn’t keep up with the rate of economic growth,” he said. “People could earn about the same working as a waiter as they could working in construction, but they’d choose construction, because they had weekends off.”

Hotels and restaurants made the most of the influx of immigrants, mainly from South America at first, but later from Eastern Europe. Castellanos says many business owners even went abroad to recruit waiters.

“This phenomenon meant wages were kept down and these new arrivals from abroad didn’t demand as much time off,” he says. “Many of them were arriving in Spain alone and so didn’t particularly want to have the whole weekend free, so they’d be happy to work every day.”

Labor expert Joaquin Aparicio says these developments were accompanied by legal changes. Since the democratic transition, he says, labor legislation has been revised around 50 times, always with a view to making the market more flexible and giving employers increased powers as the pressures of the global market grew.

Initially, the glut of jobs across the Spanish economy meant there was relatively little discontent. As president of the AMYCE waiters’ organization between 1997 and 2011, Castellanos did have concerns at how his sector was changing. But he believes the association’s fractious relationship with Comisiones Obreras, one of the country’s powerful main unions, made it difficult for AMYCE to make those worries heard.

In 2003, Comisiones Obreras unsuccessfully tried to pressure the apolitical AMYCE to condemn Spain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq. The union later shunned AMYCE’s attempts to participate in collective bargaining negotiations with employers’ groups and the government. Castellanos now rues what he sees as AMYCE’s further loss of influence since the economic crisis began to bite.