Is it time for times to change in Spain?

2016-04-19 08:00:00

As part of the EU, Spain often looks to Europe as an example in many different matters. The most recent focuses on time: should we be bringing our working hours into line with our European neighbours?
This subject has been discussed for years in social circles, but now it has entered the sphere of politics. Last week, acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced that if he regains power, Spain will return to the same time zone as the UK and Portugal, which means our clocks would go back an hour to Western European Time. Until 1941, when Franco put the hour forward as a ‘temporary measure’ to help Hitler, Spain used to be in that time zone.
The same proposal was also included in the draft agreement drawn up by PSOE and Ciudadanos a few weeks ago, so it has obviously become a political policy. It would, however, result in numerous changes to social, cultural and work aspects in Spain and would mean that for most people the working day would finish at 6 pm.
In fact, the consequences would be far-reaching. Take work, for example. According to the latest report from the OCDE, which refers to 2013, people in Spain work on average 1,665 hours a year. This is 105 fewer hours than the European average (1,770 hours a year) but is almost 300 hours more than Germany (1,388). Nevertheless, Spain is not exactly at the top of the productivity lists. Why not? The answer lies in our way of working and our schedules.
In Spain, the working day begins around 8 or 9 am; there is a half-hour break (sometimes longer) for breakfast and then another break at lunchtime, when people go home and eat. That lasts for an hour and a half or two hours (if it’s not a business lunch, that is), and then everyone goes back to the office and doesn’t normally leave until the boss does.
This is a deep-rooted tradition in Spanish working culture, and the division of the day into two sections not only makes it seem interminably long but also poses a challenge in terms of organisation.
Spanish workers are often in the office until 7.30 or 8pm, at least. In other words, we work fewer hours than the European average and we are also the worst organised. That is the problem.
Leave the office at 6 pm
Under the new proposal, if places of work were to close at 6 pm people would gain almost an hour and a half for another important part of Spanish life: the family. Balancing work and family life would be possible for a large number of workers, who would be in a similar situation to those in other professional categories such as public service employees and others who work ‘intensive hours’ from 8 am to 3 pm.
This would appear to be a good move and one which is desirable for everybody; the idea is certainly appreciated by business owners and unions.
The president of the Malaga Confederation of Business Owners (CEM) and the Confederation of Business Owners in Andalucía (CEA), Javier González de Lara, says there are three aspects to the proposed change: productivity, rationality and flexibility. He believes Spain is failing on a basic premise: “Time is gold and much more important than money, but in our country we have a tradition of not valuing time, not ours or anybody else’s,” he insists.
Unsurprisingly, the change is also supported by the National Commission for the Rationalisation of Working Hours in Spain (Arhoe), which started this debate nearly a decade ago.
“We have to look at our social habits, and that includes things like prime time TV ( the best programmes are screened after 10 pm), the times football matches are played and what hours our children keep. They go to bed later than they should and then they don’t perform as well at school,” says Javier González de Lara.
Through his own experience he knows that the “interminable working lunches” in Spain are another ‘enemy’. Also, he says, “We should look to women as an example, at how they organise their time: You don’t often see women holding gargantuan business lunches or dinners,” he points out.
Of course, the restaurant sector would not have to apply the new working hours, but it would have to adjust to the new policy. “Lunchtime could start earlier and end at 4.30, which is a very reasonable hour,” says the president of the CEM, who thinks people’s domestic lives could also do with some reorganisation.
José Luis Casero, the president of Arhoe, agrees 100 per cent. He is pleased by this new attempt by politicians to put Spain’s time back to where it used to be. “Having time for yourself, or your family, or for leisure pursuits, is very important” says Casero, who has noticed a growing tendency among young people to look at other things, beyond salary. “They are also seeking an emotional benefit, in the form of time for themselves,” he explains.
30% more productivity
As well as improvement in quality of life, Spain would benefit in terms of productivity; according to Arhoe, by adapting working hours, this would increase by 30 per cent. Nor would there be additional costs for the companies, because the increased productivity would compensate for the 300 million euros that those who defend the present system say are saved in energy costs.
Unions agree that there is a need to think about rationalising working hours, but without losing sight of the quality of employment.
The secretary for Health at Work of the CCOO union in Malaga, Juan Antonio Perles, says there are two fundamental problems in this regard: on one hand, the increasing difficulty of balancing work and home life “especially for women; they are often forced to take part-time jobs so they can look after their families and work, and that makes employment more precarious,” he says. And on the other hand, the growing incidence of psychosocial work risks, which he says are largely ignored. These include health problems arising from dependence on work, stress, depression and others. For that reason, unions welcome the discussion about flexibility but say that workers “should have sufficient autonomy to take part in this debate through collective negotiation”.
Juan Antonio Perles is not very optimistic when asked whether progress has been made in recent years. “In general, employment has become more precarious; maybe some interesting things have been done in terms of flexibility in major companies, but that is mainly due to a strong union presence,” he says.
The head of the Faculty of Social Studies and Work at Malaga University, Ana Rosa del Águila, is also cautious about evaluating the speed with which these changes would be incorporated into the social, cultural and work model. “It would take us several decades,” she warns, but she is still in favour of the measure.
In fact, in the academic sector there would need to be alternative measures, because many students work in the mornings and attend lectures in the afternoons. That would mean the working day could not finish at 6 pm. On the other hand, Ana Rosa says that shifts could be organised to cover all needs, and that idea will no doubt have to be extended to other professions in which, by their very nature, the debate cannot be held in conventional terms.
These include restaurants, bars and shops, which need to be available at times when other people want to enjoy themselves, or when they have time to go shopping.
“It makes it very difficult for working hours to be rationalised in our sector and for us to find a work-family balance ” says José Simón, the spokesman for the Mahos association, who believes long business meals are a Spanish tradition. “It’s part of our culture. The Spanish like to sit around a table and talk for ages over a meal” he insists, although he admits that nowadays the meals are taking place very late these days. “Now, it’s normal for a dinner to start at 11 pm,” he says.
He is not, however, rejecting the idea of a change. In fact, he thinks it could be beneficial if other sectors were to adjust their hours .
The situation for shopkeepers is similar, especially owners of small and medium-sized establishments , who would have to decide whether to close at 6 pm like offices and lose business ,or implement greater flexibility at the cost of their own free time. “It’s not easy, and there will never be total agreement about the matter” says the president of the Traders Association of the Historic City Centre María José Valenzuela.
What about health?
Finally, what about the impact on our health? Would lunching and dining earlier affect us? Would it be good for us, or not?
As Dr Federico Soriguer, who is an endocrinologist, points out: “People in Spain haven’t always eaten late. In the early 20th century they used to have lunch at 1pm and they also ate dinner earlier than they do now.”
He thinks it would be a good idea for Spain to recover its lost hour so there would be more time for food to be digested, and he agrees with others who have commented on the proposed changes: “It’s not just a matter of changing mealtimes. There would have to be an overall strategy,” he says.source surinenglish