FOCUS: How soaring prices are fuelling growing social unrest in Spain

A lorry drivers' strike, mass protests by farmers and fishermen, industrial production stoppages: record inflation levels have fuelled growing anger with Spain's left-wing government as energy prices go through the roof.

FOCUS: How soaring prices are fuelling growing social unrest in Spain
Demonstrators applaud as taxi drivers take part in a demonstration protesting the cost of fuel, in Barcelona on March 23, 2022. - A lorry drivers' strike, mass protests by farmers and fishermen, industrial production stoppages: record inflation levels have fuelled growing anger with Spain's left-wing government as energy prices go through the roof. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

After a weekend which saw tens of thousands hit the streets, demonstrators were to head out again on Wednesday for further rallies.

Under the slogan: “Rein in prices, protect jobs, stop the deterioration in living conditions”, the action has been called by Spain’s top unions, UGT and the CCOO Workers Committees.

Backed by consumer groups, the unrest comes as Spain saw consumer prices surge to their highest level in almost 35 years, with inflation jumping to 7.6 percent in February, against a backdrop of soaring energy costs, worsened by the war in Ukraine.

“We want the EU to take all the necessary measures, and at least let countries regulate prices… it can’t keep nations shackled with prices that are completely misaligned with the cost of electricity production,” said UGT boss Pepe Alvarez.

Rally organisers warn the consequences for both households and businesses are serious.

“Month-by-month, lighting bills, heating bills, the cost of petrol and diesel, food, housing and transport just keep going up. The whole of society is suffering,” they said in a statement.

The protests were called on the eve of a two-day European Council summit, which is likely to focus on measures to protect consumers from record energy prices that have been exacerbated by the Russian invasion.

Spain has been gripped by unrest since March 14th when lorry drivers launched an open-ended strike over mounting fuel prices, staging roadblocks and picket lines and leaving supermarkets with empty shelves and several sectors struggling to cope.

READ MORE: How the truck drivers’ strike is affecting life in Spain

The government is also facing a strike by fishermen who downed tools on Monday following calls by a federation of nearly 9,000 boats which says diesel prices have left many vessels working at a loss.

And there is anger in the livestock and farming sector, which has been hit by rising animal feed costs, with nearly 150,000 protesters demonstrating in Madrid on Sunday.

Customers pick up milk cartons on the shelves of a supermarket in Madrid on March 23th, 2022. (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

‘EU must act as one’

It is the biggest wave of social unrest since Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez came to power in mid-2018 and is firmly backed by the opposition, notably the far-right Vox which organised Saturday’s anti-government protest in several cities.

Vox, Spain’s third largest party which is seeing a boom in support, has successfully tapped into the widespread discontent, especially in rural areas, accusing the government of being “a misery factory ruining the middle classes and the most underprivileged”.

The government is in a tight spot.

Despite taking various measures in recent months to improve low wages and contain energy prices by lowering VAT and tax on electricity production, its efforts have been all but wiped out by spiralling inflation.

In a bid to appease his critics, Sanchez has pledged to unveil “a major response plan”, set to be approved on March 29, that will include significant tax cuts.

His government has also set aside a 500-million-euro ($550-million) budget to compensate truck drivers for diesel price hikes.

However, details remain sketchy, with Sanchez on Tuesday insisting the EU should “defend its citizens… (and) act together to reduce energy prices and limit the economic harm caused by the war in Ukraine”.

Over the past week, Sanchez toured European capitals to push for a common EU response after months of lobbying for Brussels to change the mechanism which couples electricity prices to the gas market.

So far, Madrid’s pleas have fallen on deaf ears, despite support from Paris but there’s hope that could change in the coming days.

If there’s no agreement, the government has said it would push ahead alone, adopting emergency measures on March 29th.

But protesters say it is too little, too late, pointing to similar measures already in force in France and Germany.

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Spanish government divided over proposed menstruation leave bill

Talk of abortion policy reform and proposed menstrual leave has dominated Spanish discourse this week, but it’s also dividing Spain’s coalition government.

Spanish government divided over proposed menstruation leave bill

Spain’s PSOE-fronted coalition government recently outlined proposals that have dominated public discourse in the country.

But the legislation, which would allow women over the age of 16 to get abortions without the permission of their parents and introduce ‘menstruation leave’ for those suffering serious period pains, has not only divided Spanish society but the government itself.

The proposals would make Spain a leader in the Western world, and the first European Union member state to introduce menstrual leave, and changes to abortion law would overturn a 2015 law passed by the conservative People’s Party that forced women aged 16 and 17 to obtain parental consent.

The wide-ranging bill would also end VAT on menstrual products, increase the free distribution of them in schools, and allow between three and five days of leave each month for women who experience particularly painful periods.

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

Menstrual leave

Ángela Rodríguez, the Secretary of State for Equality, told Spanish newspaper El Periódico in March that “it’s important to be clear about what a painful period is – we’re not talking about slight discomfort, but about serious symptoms such as diarrhoea, fever and bad headaches.”

“When there’s a problem that can’t be solved medically, we think it’s very sensible to have temporary sick leave,” she added.

Cabinet politics

The proposals are slated for approval in cabinet next week, and judging by reports in the Spanish media this week, it is far from reaching a consensus. It is believed the intra-cabinet tensions stem not from the changes to abortion and contraception accessibility, but rather the proposed menstrual leave.

The junior coalition partner in government, Podemos, largely supports the bill, but it is believed some in the PSOE ranks are more sceptical about the symbolism and employment effects of the proposed period pain policy.

Vice President and Minister of Economic Affairs, Nadia Calviño, said this week: “Let me repeat it very clearly: this government believes and is absolutely committed to gender equality and we will never adopt measures that may result in a stigmatisation of women.”

Yet Second Vice President and Minister of Labour, Yolanda Díaz, who is viewed as further to the left than President Pedro Sánchez and other PSOE cabinet ministers, is reportedly “absolutely in favour” of the measure to reform Spain’s “deeply masculinised” labour market.

Sources in the Spanish media have this week also reported that some PSOE cabinet ministers feel the proposed paid leave not only plays up to stereotypes of women, or stigmatises them, like Calviño says, but also places them at a disadvantage in the world of work.

Minister of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration, José Luis Escrivá, stated that while the government should seek to improve women’s employment protections, it should also seek to boost their participation in the labour market under “better conditions.”

In that vein, some feel menstrual leave could be used a form of of employment discrimination similarly to how pregnancy has been historically, and the policy would, in that sense, actually be more regressive than progressive in enshrining women’s workplace rights. 

READ MORE: Spain eyes free contraception for under-25’s

Trade unions

Trade unions are also sceptical of the menstrual leave legislation. Cristina Antoñanzas, deputy secretary of UGT, one of Spain’s largest trade unions, has echoed those in the cabinet who feel the proposals could “stigmatise women.” She added that “it does women a disservice.”

Public opinion

A survey run by INTIMINA found that 67 percent of Spanish women are in favour of regulating menstrual leave, but also that 75 percent fear it is “a double-edged sword” that could generate labor discrimination.

The survey also found that 88 percent of women who suffer from disabling and frequent period pain have gone to work despite it. Seventy-one percent admitted that they have normalised working with pain.

Cabinet showdown

The proposed menstrual leave policy will be debated in cabinet next week when the Council of Ministers debates and approves the broader abortion and contraception reforms. According to sources in the Spanish media, and many cabinet ministers themselves, it seems a consensus on menstruation leave is a long way off.