Madrid-Brussels Express

Last 22nd March, the European Parliament’s FEMM and EMPL committees held a joint meeting on the Parliament’s progress in the roadmap towards a life and work balance. It is hard to tell whether the half-empty room was due to the fact that it took place on the same day as the terror attacks in Brussels or whether it was a perfect illustration of the interest the subject sparks. This is after all round two in an attempt to introduce conciliation measures, after the failed maternity leave Directive was dropped after it stagnated in the Council.

Zoom to Spain. The issue of work-life balance, with different ramifications, is increasingly popular. In the newly elected Parliament, a member of Podemos showed up in Congress with her infant baby, who was in her arms throughout the whole session. For the last general elections that took place on 20th December the main political parties included a reference to striking a balance between work and life. Acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy recently awoke from the stupor he has been in since the general elections of last December and announced that he would ask companies to end work days at 18h.

But all this sadly does not mean much in terms of real improvement. The likelihood of new elections being held at the end of June means that Rajoy’s statement was more of a pre-electoral campaign announcement than a real measure to be implemented any time soon. The fact is, just like in Brussels, this discussion has been dragging along for a while now: in the past legislature, a subcommittee to study how to improve working hours and to strike a work and life balance was actually created in Congress. The group diligently carried out its mandate, held hearings with experts and published a final report with very specific recommendations to act. It was then buried in a drawer and ignored for the remainder of the legislature.

There just does not seem to be any political will to advance this issue, here or in Brussels. In the case of Spain, cultural habits and the Spanish way of life are often put forward to excuse our bizarre work habits. The international media had a field day with Rajoy’s announcement, saying he was putting an end to the national siesta, in a perfect illustration of how the topic is often broached.

Political scientist Marta Romero argues that the reason why the matter is not taken seriously is because it is commonly linked to the discourse on equality, parity, and other social affairs-related measures, and it should be instead linked to the economy. Link it to numbers, she says, and people might pay attention. Let’s give that a try: data from the OECD shows that in Spain the average hours worked per year are 280 more than in Germany, or the equivalent to seven more weeks a year of work. This however is unfortunately not coupled with stronger competiveness or efficiency: in the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness rankings Spain ranked 121 out of 144 countries in terms of macroeconomic environment, and 100 out of 144 with regards to the labour market efficiency.

The good news is, while politicians come around, society is steadily moving forward. A National Commission of the Association for the Rationalisation of Working Hours was created in 2006 and is lobbying for shorter working hours and moving back the clocks to GMT (in line with Portugal and the UK), amongst other measures. Companies like energy giant Iberdrola decided to introduce new working hours in 2008 and since then, its employees have an intensive 8 am to 3 pm working day, with a flexible entry time (between 7.15 and 8.45 am). Just by looking at the numbers, it has been a success: work absenteeism has decreased, productivity has increased by about 500.000 hours a year, and the number of accidents has dropped.

Another example of how society is pushing for change is a group of working women which I had the honour to join, which are promoting the debate on the need to end enslaving office hours and push for more flexible and efficient work days, using the hashtags #9to5 or #yoconcilio.

These are all good initiatives that are paving the way for a more productive, efficient economy. But we need politicians on board for a true long-term, sustainable reform.



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