On May 18th, 2020 a statement made by Yolanda Díaz, a Galician communist lawyer who in January became Spanish Minister of Labor and Social Economy, immediately caught my attention. Three weeks ago it was still unclear how deeply the completely incompetent handling of the pandemic by the current administration will affect the country, and it still is. Many companies and small businesses will have to close for good, or won’t reopen, laying off staff. Quite a few freelancers and self-employed persons (autónomos) will end up joining the army of unemployed in Spain.
When the coronavirus started hitting Spain hard in mid-March and strict confinement measures were imposed by the central government, only 4.5% of the roughly 20 million strong Spanish workforce were involved in teleworking. Suddenly, that number jumped to almost 50%. Many of those involuntarily working from home will continue to do so at least until the end of this year. Unsurprisingly, so far no specific regulations about this increasingly popular work modality existed.
So it sounds reasonable to pass a law that regulates teleworking, for Díaz a “fabulous tool which improves productivity”. But what are her priorities? First, compliance with the requirements for daily and weekly rest periods (stipulated in the Workers’ Statute, first approved in 1980 and last revised in 2015); second, conciliation between work and personal life; third, safeguarding of leisure time; fourth, prevention of labor risks.
Considering Spain’s catastrophic economic situation, to prioritize rest and leisure over much needed diligence, also mentioning unspecified dangers just sounds irresponsible. But for Díaz, extended working hours in these extraordinary times seem to be the real problem. “The mere fact that you have to be available all the time generates stress”. “People might actually have to connect with their jobs 24/7!” “Somebody might call them at any given moment during working hours”. Oh my God!
In fact, a program called Me Cuida began as early as March 17, granting teleworkers the right to choose and adapt working hours to the necessities of their children, also confined. It allows parents to change schedules and reduce their workday, varying from 10% to 100%. Díaz didn’t waste the chance to point out that until now, those norms determining absence from work dated from the 20th century and reproduced traditional social roles. For her, focusing on extracting women from their jobs creates distortions and deep inequalities. This is the typical feminist viewpoint that all bad things basically happen to women only…
Labor unions have demanded that the way in which costs for electricity, water, gas and the internet are covered, also must be legislated. The strict observation of working hours set in advance would be the company’s sole responsibility, to be controlled by a third party.
Through a family connection, a European friend of mine got a job at an East Asian company that wanted to expand in Eastern Europe. He was fired after two months because on a Sunday he dared to switch his mobile off. An Asian buddy, who as a civil servant for a few years represented the interests of his country abroad, really enjoyed his rather relaxed stay overseas. Back home, he didn’t dare to switch his mobile off even once out of fear of not being promoted…
These stories reflect the other extreme, and show that in other cultures employees might need more protection. In significant parts of Europe, they are definitely overprotected and mostly unprepared for a changing labor market and future challenges. Under this aspect, declarations like those by Ms. Díaz send a completely wrong message from the very beginning.