Could the long Spanish working day be capped at 18.00?

Fátima Báñez

THE drawn-out Spanish working day may be about to change now that employment minister Fátima Báñez has announced a real commitment to cutting it short.

She said in Parliament this week that MPs ‘should clock off at 18.00 to set an example’, and that she wants the rest of the workforce to be able to do so in order to ‘bring it in line with Europe’.

For as long as most employees in Spain can remember, the day has always started anywhere between 08.00 and 09.30 depending upon the nature of the business, and finished between 20.00 and 21.30.

Typically, a ‘breakfast break’ of up to 45 minutes is taken at around 11.00, with all staff leaving en masse to go to a bar for coffee and croissants, then the long lunch hour can be anything from two hours (roughly 14.00 to 16.00) to four-and-a-half hours (13.00 to 17.30).

This means that although Spaniards are not actually working a 12-hour day, they are ‘on the go’ for this long and, with commuting where applicable, can mean 14 hours a day spent away from home five days a week.

And in most sectors, Saturday mornings – typically until 13.00 or 14.30 – are a normal part of the working week.

Despite this, numerous studies over decades has shown Spain is one of the least-productive countries in the western world, leading to an unfair stereotype of its workers being ‘lazy’ and ‘needing to sleep all afternoon’ – something which employees sorely resent as they practically never see the inside of their homes in waking hours except on Saturday afternoons and Sundays.

Four hours in town, everything shut and nothing to do

For those who live close enough to work to go home for lunch, the long middle-of-the-day break of two to four-and-a-half hours means they can cook a hot meal, settle down to enjoy it and chat with their family, take the standard 20-minute siesta afterwards – contrary to popular stereotypes, the siesta is only a short post-meal nap and very few even bother – and relax for a while before going back for the three-hour afternoon shift.

But these days, the majority of employees do not live near enough to work to justify going home, meaning commuters are stuck in a different town for hours with nothing to do.

As their work premises will be shut for the long lunch, bringing a packed lunch to heat up in the office microwave is not normally feasible, so they have to spend a good chunk of their salaries on eating in restaurants five days a week.

Then, they have to find some way of filling the next three or four hours with nowhere particular to go – and as shops are shut and, in smaller towns, even bars during this period, their few options include table-blocking in a restaurant ordering endless coffees and beers they do not really want, or sitting on a park bench with a book.

This is hardly conducive to the kind of ‘quality time’ or ‘relaxation’ that sets them up for another three or four hours’ work in the evening and, getting home at 21.00 or 22.00, they would not have time for their daily hot meal after work as they would go to bed on a full stomach, meaning they have to somehow arrange to eat it in the middle of the day.

No home life, either
Public sector and bank workers, including many medical staff, typically work 08.00 to 15.00 and attend to customers until 13.00 or 14.00, with the same ‘breakfast break’ of 30-45 minutes as the private sector – effectively, a full working day, but with members of the public having to rush to see them in the mornings.

All this means that, whilst Spaniards are only actually on the job – and paid – for the standard eight hours and, in some cases, only seven, their days are very long and they are unproductive simply because they are tired and have no home life.

For customers, shops open until 20.30 can be a real bonus, although the downside is the long shut-down in the middle of the day – and for workers, the downside is even greater: parents hardly see their children; where both work, it is usually the grandparents who do the school runs; mums and dads cannot oversee their kids doing their homework and become involved with their schooling; they cannot take evening classes or go to after-work sports, arts or leisure classes – these tend to start at 20.00 or 21.00 to cater for workers – and prime-time TV programmes, including League football matches, start at around 22.00 or 23.00.

The end result is that the average Spaniard, with or without the 20-minute post-lunch siesta, barely gets seven hours’ sleep a day.

Unique in Europe – even the Italians, criticised for shutting shops for ‘long lunches’, only do so from 14.00 until 16.00 – Spain’s working hours have barely been questioned by employees since anyone below retirement age has never known anything different.

Some say they would not want to change their hours, as they would miss their leisurely lunch – but these are mainly the workers able to go home for that time, and they have not factored in the advantages of getting home earlier in the evening and having five or six hours of family time and leisurely evening meals instead.

“Spain needs 21st-century office hours, not Franco-era farming hours”
This needs to change, says Fátima Báñez (pictured left) who, having been employment minister for five years, has barely been quoted in the media, despite the job market being one of Spain’s most crucial bug-bears.

Now, she has found her voice and said: “Someone has to take the first step.”

Calling for large companies, MPs and trade unions to back her, Báñez wants to start now, but ‘leading by example’ rather than enshrining a 18.00 clock-off time in law.

She recognises that Spain’s working hours are based on the Franco era when two-thirds of the active population in what was then practically a third-world country were in the agricultural industry; now, a modern, forward-looking European Union nation in which, outside the tourism belts w here the catering sector is the main job provider, the majority work in retail or in offices, Spain needs 21st-century hours which fit in better with the rest of Europe.

Back to GMT after 74 years?
The proposed working hours amendment may come hand in hand with a move to put Spain back onto GMT, as it was before World War II when dictator General Franco shifted the country an hour forward to align with his allies in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

Some experts are against putting the mainland and Balearic Islands onto GMT (and BST in summer), saying Spain has ‘got used to’ its eternal jet-lag ater 74 years, that the key is to adjust the daily grind to fit in with ‘natural’ time – which has partially already happened, with lunch typically at 14.30 and dinner on non-working days at around 21.00 – and all it would achieve would be that it gets dark earlier.

The Balearic Islands even campaigned in October for the opposite: for the archipelago to be able to keep CEST when the rest of Europe put its clocks back an hour, saying the later nights and longer days were better for tourism and for general wellbeing, given that countries with few hours of daylight in winter show statistically higher suicide rates.

It is open to conjecture whether the Canary Islands, which are further west of the Meridian line, would remain on GMT or go back another hour.

Oddly enough, most of mainland Spain is in the western half of the GMT zone: the Greenwich Meridian line runs through the villages of Pego and El Verger, northern Alicante province (pictured right), one of the peninsula’s easternmost points.

Getting dark earlier may sound gloomy, but the IESE Business School says it would encourage an earlier finish to the working day and make employees more inclined to go to bed earlier, giving them more sleep and, with both factors combined, making Spain more productive but with three times as much leisure time.

Published Think Spain16 December 2016

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