Tensions in Spain’s coalition government flare up over labour reform

Tensions in Spain's leftist coalition government flared Monday over a promised reform of a landmark 2012 labour reform, with the two ruling parties split over the scope of the proposed changes.

Tensions in Spain's coalition government flare up over labour reform
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez next to Socialist Economy Minister Nadia Calviño (L), who is against the proposed "revolution" of Spain's labour laws. Photo: Oscar del Pozo/AFP

Changes to the labour law are one of the reforms Brussels expects by the end of the year in exchange for Spain getting the full €140 billion ($162 billion) promised the country from the European Comission’s massive coronavirus economic recovery programme.

The previous conservative government passed the reform in a bid to revive an economy which had been devastated by the 2008 global financial crisis. Among other things, it made it easier for companies to shed workers and cut wages.

Proponents argue it transformed Spain into a more competitive market and created jobs, while critics say it has made jobs more precarious in a country that already has the highest proportion of temporary workers in the European Union.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s government has repeatedly vowed to unpick the labour reform by the end of the year.

But as the deadline nears, sniping over the crucial reform has increased between members of his Socialist party and those of his junior coalition partners, the far-left Podemos.

The two parties were set to have emergency talks over these tensions issue on Monday evening at the request of Podemos.

The government has threatened to revoke the most controversial elements of the reform, such as a shift to individual company deals regarding pay and work conditions from sector-wide collective bargaining agreements.

Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz, the most visible face of Podemos, has promised a “big revolution in the labour market”.

Yolanda Díaz is one of Spain's Deputy Prime Ministers. Photo: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP
Yolanda Díaz serves as the country’s Labour Minister and is also one of Spain’s Deputy Prime Ministers. Photo: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP

Socialist Economy Minister Nadia Calviño — a former general director for budget at the European Commission — is more reticent, refusing to talk of a “repeal” of the reform.

Business groups have in recent days expressed their concerns over Diaz’s “Marxist” approach and supported Calvino, who is accused by Podemos of “intrusion” because she wants to take part in the talks over the labour changes.

Diaz was applauded over the weekend at a meeting of one of Spain’s largest unions, Comisiones Obreras, when she vowed to carry out the reform of the labour law “despite all the resistance”.

“There is a part of the government that does not want the model of labour relations to change, that wants to maintain the status quo,” she added on Monday.

Antonio Barroso, an analyst at political consultancy Teneo, said the Socialist party “wants a more moderate reform, more in line with what Brussels wants.”

But repealing the labour reform was one of the “star promises” of Podemos when it agreed to enter into a coalition government with the Socialists in 2020 and it fears that if it does not keep its word it will “pay a price at the ballot box”, he added.

However, since conservative parties are currently leading in opinion polls “it is not in the interests of either party for the government to fall,” Barroso said.

European Economic Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said the “labour market has traditionally been a problem in Spain, with huge differences between workers who have more protections and those with less.”

Government talks with labour and business groups over the reform can not go on indefinitely, he added during an interview published Sunday in daily El Pais.

“After a while the government must decide,” said Gentiloni, currently on a visit to Spain.

Speaking at an economic forum in Madrid on Monday attended by Gentiloni, Sánchez said his “entire government” was behind the reform.

“This will be done in Spain as it is done in Europe: through social dialogue and consensus,” he insisted.

READ ALSO: A foreigner’s guide to understanding Spanish politics in five minutes

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Ideological battle over abortion as Spain vote looms

A controversial anti-abortion proposal by the far-right Vox party has sparked heated debate in a key election year for Spain, with its left-wing government raising the alarm about extremist agendas.

Ideological battle over abortion as Spain vote looms

Last week, a Vox official in the northern region of Castilla y León, which is co-run by the right and far right, said doctors would have to offer women seeking an abortion the option of hearing the heartbeat of the foetus.

The measure is similar to that adopted last year by the far-right government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, which requires pregnant women to listen to the foetus’ “vital functions’ before having an abortion.

The aim was “to promote childbirth and support families”, said the region’s deputy head Juan Garcia-Gallardo, a member of Vox which, like other parties of its ilk, has put a lot of focus on this ideologically charged issue.

READ ALSO: Spain’s Castilla y León to introduce measures to prevent abortions

Spain, a European leader when it comes to women’s rights, decriminalised abortion in 1985 and in 2010 it passed a law that allows women to opt freely for abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy in most cases.

A government bill which aims to guarantee access to the procedure at public hospitals is currently making its way through parliament.

‘Threat is very real’

Vox in 2022 entered a regional government for the first time since it was founded in 2013 when it became the junior partner in a coalition with the conservative Popular Party (PP) in Castilla y León.

The experiment in the region close to Madrid is being closely watched: polls suggest the PP would win a general election expected the end of the year but would need the support of Vox to govern.

Before that, Spain will vote in May in regional and local elections.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez used his address at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday to warn of the threat posed by the far-right, in what was seen as a reference to Castilla y León.

“We have to prevent these political forces from reaching the institutions… because the threat is very real, especially in those countries where far-right forces have the support of mainstream conservative parties,” he said.

He accused Moscow of using far-right parties to sow division in Europe, adding: “We will fight them with the same determination and conviction that the Ukrainians are fighting Russian forces.”

Sánchez’s executive has sent two notices to the regional government of Castilla y León reminding it that it does not have the authority to alter the abortion law.

READ ALSO: What are Spain’s abortion laws for foreign residents and visitors?

‘Drive a wedge’

Meanwhile, the main opposition PP has tried to distance itself from the controversy. It said the measure, which was first put forward by Garcia-Gallardo, will never come into force.

During a TV interview on Tuesday, PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo said: “No woman who wants to voluntarily interrupt her pregnancy according to the law will be coerced anywhere where the PP governs.”

Feijóo, who has pushed the PP to the centre since becoming leader of the party in April, did not hide his discomfort with Vox, which he said was “clearly mistaken”.

He said the far-right party had sparked a controversy that “clearly” benefitted Sánchez’s government, which had “a lot of problems”.

The abortion row has overshadowed other disputes troubling the government. They include a row sparked by a flagship law against sexual violence that toughened penalties for rape but eased sentences for other sexual crimes. This has set some convicts free after their jail terms were reduced.

Antonio Barroso, of political consultancy Teneo, said Vox was “trying to drive a wedge within the PP by pushing for initiatives that pull the party away from the centre”.

Controversies over issues like abortion could help Sánchez “to mobilise the left-wing electorate by capitalising on their potential fears of a PP-Vox government”, he added in a research note.