Job massacre in Spain

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This January, as unemployment in Spain reached 3 million, the Minister of Labour, Celestino Corbacho announced, "The worst is over. We will not reach 4 million." The April figures place unemployment at 4,010,700 - 17.36 percent of the labour force and the highest figure in Spain's history. 766,000 jobs were destroyed in January, February and March.

These figures, the highest in the European Union, reflect the destruction of Spain's construction industry. In 2006 total building in Spain was equal to building in France, Germany and Britain combined. For several decades Spain's economy has depended on construction, as anyone who has holidayed on the ruined Mediterranean coast can testify.

Unemployment is now ravaging services, especially tourism, the other motor of Spain's economy, which dropped 5 percent last year and is likely to fall further this year. The PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers' Party - no relation) government's response was to reshuffle the cabinet in early April, bringing in as finance minister Elena Salgado, a businesswoman responsible for liberalising the telecoms market in the 1992-1996 PSOE government. It combines the message to employers that their demands will not be neglected with repeated insistence that workers' rights will not be affected.

In fact, workers' rights have already been so weakened over the years that dismissal is much easier and less costly for bosses than it used to be. Some 25 percent of the total labour force are employed on temporary contracts with no defence against dismissal. For people under 30 this rises to over 60 percent.

The bosses are attempting to use the crisis to further erode job stability. Gerardo Diaz Ferran, boss of the Employers' Federation (CEOE), insists, "Businesses can only create employment in the current climate if dismissal is made easier. Otherwise they won't risk hiring people."

The reaction of the main unions has been to negotiate "job-saving" agreements under any conditions. Most recently government and unions triumphantly announced that 1,500 jobs had been "saved" at the Seat plant at Martorell (Spain's biggest car plant) on the basis of an agreement to freeze wages. Fernandez Toxo, leader of Spain's biggest union, the Workers' Commissions, was forced by his members to say for the first time in April that they "might call a general strike, if the government cedes to employers' demands".

Oleguer Bohigas, an activist in Barcelona's Unemployed Assembly, told me, "Instead of reducing the working day to 35 hours or less and defending the jobs of people on short term contracts, the government give huge sums to the banks and undisclosed amounts to big firms like Seat. It's incredible that they want to solve the crisis with the same neoliberal policies that caused it." There are small assemblies in most of Spain's cities, engaged in leafleting dole queues, occupying job centres and organising demonstrations. The workers' movement has yet to react, however, despite growing demands for a general strike from the base and from smaller, campaigning unions.