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RESIDENCY PERMITS

Why are staff at Spanish embassies around the world on strike?

Staff at Spanish embassies and consulates in at least seven different countries have joined a strike that started in the UK, leading to delays in visa processing for many around the world.

Spanish embassy London
Staff at the Spanish Embassy in London in 2017. Photo: Tolga AKMEN / AFP

If there ever was a clear indication that Spanish salaries and work conditions are not in line with that of their European counterparts, this may be it. 

It all began on March 14th 2022, when workers at the Spanish Embassy in London called an indefinite strike. 

They demand and continue to demand a salary update after thirteen years of reported wage freezes, equal pay for all workers in the same administrative category, and the option of contributing to Spain’s social security system rather than the UK’s. 

The manifesto by Spain’s consular staff explaining the reasons for the strike, under the headline “Abandoned”.

The salaries of Spain’s consular staff in the UK range between €20,000 and €26,000 per year, not enough to cover London’s sky-high living costs, employees rightfully claim.

READ ALSO: Spanish Embassy staff in UK go on strike over pay and work conditions

These demands and strike actions were replicated at consulates in Manchester and Edinburgh later on in March, and although the huelgas (strikes) in the United Kingdom have been reduced to a couple of hours a day after strike organisers PLEX (Labour Personnel of the Foreign Service) reached some consensus with Madrid, the problems aren’t completely resolved yet.

In fact, anger against Spain’s Foreign Affairs Ministry (Ministerio de Exteriores) appears to be boiling over around the world.

Domino effect 

Protests in the UK have now incited strikes among Spanish embassy staff in other countries including France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Ireland and Australia.

Staff based in China are also showing their support by sending letters to their superiors with similar demands.

In Israel, Spanish consular workers are protesting outside their embassy during their lunch breaks, and throughout Latin America embassy staff are getting ready to carry out their own strikes.  

As is the case with staff in the UK, they are challenging their low pay and wage freezes, which they claim often don’t meet the minimum wage in the country they’re living in.

According to union representatives, all staff abroad have had their salaries “frozen since 2009, despite inflation and greater pressure on the workforce, which is creating an increasingly tense environment”.

In France at the consulate in Lyon, worker Marta Navarro has said that they “earn below the French minimum interprofessional salary and that the only way the consulate is managing to function is due to internship staff” who can be paid less.  

While in Germany, Spanish embassy staff are protesting the loss of purchasing power after 13 years of salary freezing, for which they demand a salary increase. The salary of a consular official at the Berlin consulate is around €36,732 per year. 

In Brussels, employees say that although in 2019 there was a 3.2 percent increase in wages in most European Union countries, it did not make up for the loss of purchasing power. They argue that in the last nine months there have been four wage increases in Belgium and they have not received any of them. 

And down under in Australia, Marcos Redondo, an official of the Spanish Consulate in Sydney has told the Spanish press that “in 2017 they were on strike for 35 working days.” But after almost a month and a half, the workers could not sustain the strike, as they could not afford the loss of wages. Since then, they have sent several letters addressed to the Australian ambassador to Spain saying that Sydney workers “are again below the legal minimum wage for the fifth consecutive year”. 

Although the main demand of Exteriores‘ workforce abroad is a wage increase, they also want a labour agreement, which will regulate their working conditions. Those in the UK also want to be able to contribute to Spain’s social security system rather than the UK’s, which since Brexit offers higher benefits than the British system.

Visa processing delays and longer waiting times

Spain’s embassies and consulates abroad are responsible for issuing Spanish passports, offering assistance to Spanish nationals and processing visas for foreigners who want to move to Spain, among other responsibilities. 

There have been reports that hundreds of Spaniards residing in the UK are trapped in the country as a result of their passports expiring and not  being able to get an appointment to renew their documents at the Spanish embassy or consulates for months, even before the strikes began in March.

This showcases how deep rooted the problems are at Spain’s embassies and consulates in the UK. In 2021, Spain went for six months without having an Ambassador in the United Kingdom and there have been ongoing complaints for the past years about long queues, poor service and lengthy processing times, all of which have worsened as a result of Covid-19 and Brexit.

Spanish embassy and consular workers by contrast argue that they are not only underpaid, they are understaffed.

From a foreigner’s perspective, the recent strikes in the UK have meant that anyone trying to apply for Spain’s Non-Lucrative Visa, Golden Visa, work visas or student visas has had to wait longer than they had originally planned for appointments and processing, causing some documentation to expire and affecting their relocation goals. 

This backlog of applications is now slowly but surely addressed in the United Kingdom, but new strikes and protests by consular staff around the world are likely to result in a similar limbo for many other applicants who have to deal with Spanish embassies or consulates.

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For members

MOVING TO SPAIN

Six hard facts Americans should be aware of before moving to Spain 

There are 40,000 US nationals living in Spain but the road to residency and integration isn’t always straightforward for them. Here are six practical points Americans should factor in before embarking on a move to 'España', from work, to tax and healthcare.

Six hard facts Americans should be aware of before moving to Spain 

If you’re a US national who is considering making a move to Spain, you’ve no doubt already been captivated by all the country has to offer: the food, the people, the rhythm of life, the culture, the wine (of course), the scenery, the festivals, and so on. 

There’s a long list of quality-of-life positives that come with a move to Spain which could indeed make you happier than you are in the US. 

But before you start considering a permanent or long-term move to the country of your dreams, you should first think of the practicalities and potential downsides of such a big life change. 

MAP: Where in Spain do all the Americans live?

Above all is the fact that despite the United States’s reputation as a world leader in many regards, for the Spanish government you’re a third-country national with the same rights (or lack thereof) as any other non-EU national, from a Chinese person, to an Australian or an Indian citizen.

This is the crux of the matter, and a factor which will influence most of the important points to be aware of that we will now list.

Finding work or building a career isn’t easy

You’ll no doubt already know that Spain is renowned for its high unemployment rate, unstable work market and relatively low wages, but as a non-EU national there is an added set of obstacles to consider.

Firstly, applying for residency through a contract job is near impossible. Spanish employers would have to first demonstrate that they have been unable to find a suitable EU candidate for the position before being able to sponsor/hire you. 

Alternatively, you’d have to have the skills and experience which are included in Spain’s shortage occupation list, but this is made up almost entirely of jobs in the maritime and shipping industry.

It is true that Spain is set to make it easier to recruit non-EU foreigners to cover some of its most pressing labour shortages, but these are mainly in the tourism, hospitality and agricultural sectors.

Then there’s the nightmare non-EU foreigners in regulated professions are currently enduring – think doctors, dentists, engineers, lawyers and so on – as the validation of their qualifications (known as homologación) is a pricy and convoluted process which takes at least three years. Others who need to have their qualifications verified for non-regulated professions (known as equivalencia) will have to wait two years on average.

With that in mind, setting up your own business might be one of the best bets to make a living for yourself and gain Spanish residency. This self-employed work visa is also a bit arduous as you’ll need proof of financial means and a business plan among other requirements, but on the whole it’s probably one of the most feasible residency options.

The Spanish government did announce an upcoming Startups Law and digital nomad visa in 2021, legislation which could indeed make it easier for Americans to remote work from Spain, but it isn’t clear yet when this will be approved.

A final option is that of becoming an English-language assistant at a Spanish school. It’s an easy way to get into Spain, it offers decent pay for the few hours you’re required to work and it can be a stepping stone to other work goals from within Spain.  

You need a lot of money to ‘buy’ Spanish residency

If you’re retired or don’t plan to work in Spain, then you’ll need to show you have the financial means to cover your costs. 

This can best be done through Spain’s non-lucrative visa or the so-called golden visa. 

As the name suggests, the non-lucrative visa (NLV) is a residency permit which doesn’t allow you to work in Spain or technically carry out professional activities you have abroad from Spain.

A US national wanting to apply for the NLV for the first time in 2022 will need to prove they have €27,792 ($31,390) for one year, an amount which rises if you include other family members. You’ll have to show proof of financial means when you renew the NLV again.

You can find more in-detail information on the NLV’s financial requirements as well as a breakdown of the pros and cons in the articles linked directly below:

As for the other main option for those who won’t work in Spain – the golden visa – the main options are buying a property (or more) worth €500,000+ (the option most applicants choose) or investing €1 million in a Spanish company or having €1 million in a Spanish bank account.

READ MORE: What foreigners should be aware of before applying for Spain’s golden visa

So all in all, applying for Spanish residency as a US citizen who can’t or doesn’t want to work in Spain involves having a lot of money saved up.

Public healthcare is the standard in Spain, but access to it as an American is subject to conditions

As you hail from a country where healthcare is notoriously not available to all, you may have assumed that here in Spain, where the approach is starkly different, anyone can walk into a public hospital and receive treatment. 

And there would be nothing wrong in thinking that initially, but the truth is that access to Spain’s sanidad pública is based on social security contributions, which are paid through your taxes as a contract employee or self-employed worker.

What this means is that if you’re a US national residing in Spain you won’t automatically get access to Spain’s public healthcare system. 

In fact, if you’re applying for the NLV or golden visa, you will have to take out comprehensive private health insurance for your application to be accepted, something which can be difficult and costly if you have pre-existing conditions.

You should also keep in mind that there’s a scheme called the “convenio especial” (special agreement) which allows foreigners who have been registered as residents in Spain for a year to pay a monthly sum into the country’s public health system to have access to it.

Under 65s pay a fixed monthly fee of €60 per month and over 65s pay €157 per month to obtain full cover through Spain’s public health system.

You’ll have to resit your driving exam again

The US is for the most part a nation of drivers. In Spain, if you live in a town or city you will be able to move around easily on foot or by using the country’s efficient public transport network.

However, if your intention is to buy a car and continue driving in Spain, keep in mind that after six months of residency in the country you will need to resit your driving exam again in Spain and get a Spanish driving licence.

Unfortunately, Spain and the United States have no mutual licence exchange agreement or recognition scheme.

READ MORE: How much does it cost to get your driving licence in Spain?

It’s certainly frustrating to think that you will have to cough up a considerable amount of money for something that you already know how to do, but on the plus side you’ll get to understand Spanish roads and driving, and possibly learn how to use a stick (gearbox) as most cars are manual in Spain.

You have to commit to living in Spain

Keep in mind that when you obtain Spanish residency, it won’t necessarily entitle you to enter and leave the country for the rest of your life, especially if you spend extended periods of time outside of Spain. Permits have to be renewed and their conditions respected.

At first you will be given temporary residency (which lasts five years) and with this permit you risk losing residency when you leave Spain for more than six months in a period of one year.

In the case of sporadic absences from Spain, the sum of these periods outside of the country during those five years of temporary residence must not exceed ten months if you intend to apply for permanent residency. 

Permanent residency is valid for ten years (you can then renew it or apply for Spanish citizenship), but you can lose your residency if you’re outside of Spain for more than 12 months continuously, or for more than 30 months during the last five years.

Only the golden visa offers more lenient rules in terms of time spent outside of Spain. 

None of this means that you can’t spend several months at a time back home in the States – in fact extenuating circumstances such as caring for a sick family member, work or study allow for a bit more time outside Spain – just keep in mind that you have keep tabs on long absences outside of Spain as a non-EU citizen.

You have to pay taxes in Spain even if you’re not working here

As a Spanish resident (someone who spends more than 183 days in a calendar year in Spain), you have to pay taxes here.

Foreign residents in Spain pay tax on their worldwide income at personal tax rates which are progressive, from 19 percent to 45 percent.

Fortunately, there is a treaty between Spain and the US which helps determine which country to pay taxes to and the tax deadlines.

Equally, if you live in Spain and own assets abroad worth more than €50,000, you have to declare all this to the Spanish taxman, through the Modelo 720.

There are plenty more tax matters to keep in mind if you have assets and/or income sources on both sides of the Atlantic (it may be worth consulting a tax expert), so just keep in mind that if you move to Spain you will have to deal with all of this complex scenario.

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