The number of workplace accidents registered in Spain during the first six months of 2015 grew by almost 7 per cent in comparison to 2014. As many as 218,019 “minor” accidents were reported, 13,577 more than during the same period last year, along with 1,593 “serious” accidents, one more than at the same period last year, and 239 fatal accidents, 16 more than in 2014.
The 2012 labour market reforms have worsened the situation. As Pedro J. Linares, Occupation Health and Environment Secretary for the CCOO trade union confederation, explains to Equal Times, the reform has “made dismissals cheaper, weakened trade union bargaining power and slackened investment in occupational health and safety. When people come and go from a company, there is no training. Turnover is very high, as is job insecurity.”
“The increased workload linked to the rate of unemployment and the change in the models of employment and labour relations are fuelling increased job insecurity and turnover. When 25 per cent of contracts last for less than seven days, there is little scope for occupational safety training,” adds Linares.
In 2012, Eurostat placed Spain in the bottom group in terms of occupational risk prevention in the EU. Linares however recalls that the 2009 Law on Occupational Risk Prevention was “a great step forward, as prior to that we were at twice the European average. But the crisis and unemployment have driven reforms that are fuelling a surge in accidents in all sectors, outstripping economic growth.”
R.A. (who wishes to remain anonymous) is amongst those suffering from what are classed as “overexertion accidents”. Pressed by the crisis, she worked as a waitress in a restaurant in central Madrid that was open all day.
“Rather than having the two days off a week established in the collective agreement, we only had one, and we would often work ten hours in a row. We wouldn’t even take the 30-minute break and we would often eat standing up, even leaning on the rubbish bin.”
She developed plantar fasciitis (a debilitating foot disorder) from spending so many hours on her feet. It was left untreated, which led her into a state of severe depression. “I was signed off work for two weeks and was prescribed anti-depressants, when what I needed was to rest. We were already exploited in the restaurant trade before the crisis, but now it’s worse,” she told Equal Times.
The consequences of precarious employment
In its report Precarious Employment Kills, the Unión Sindical Obrera (USO) underlines that “it is not by chance that the change in trend, increasing occupational accidents, came about in 2013, a year after the reform took effect”. The Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) also reflects these developments in its recently-published report commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Law on Occupational Risk Prevention.
A report by the State Working Conditions Observatory (OECT) points out that workers employed through temporary employment agencies are the most vulnerable to workplace accidents, and their number on the labour market has been rising constantly since 2012.
Already in 2012, before the reform was approved, the OECT reported that the main causes of fatal work accidents were “unsuitable working methods, sub-standard protection, the lack of employee training and information, and the non-identification of risks”.
This was what happened to N.M. She had only been working for three months as a receptionist at a public centre run by the Madrid Regional Government for people with learning disabilities. One morning she went to close the sliding door for vehicle access.
“I did it manually because the mechanism wasn’t working. It came off the rail, fell on top of me and pushed me to the floor. The company reacted quite well, but it was a safety deficiency. The door was fixed after my accident but I notified the Health and Safety Department of the UGT, so that it would keep an eye out. They shouldn’t only repair it but check it from time to time,” she tells Equal Times.
She is suffering from inflammation of the sternum and ribs as well as nerve damage to the hand, but she was lucky. Two workers died in June 2015, crushed by a rolling shutter whilst working at the El Tapiado industrial estate in Molina del Segura (Murcia).
In its 2014 Annual Report, the Public Prosecutions Service notes the increase in sentences related to occupational accidents and urges the government to set up specialised tribunals to provide a “rapid response” to these offences, given that the average time lag between the incident and the court decision is currently between six and eight years.
In 2014, the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy amended the Law on Mutual Insurance Societies for Occupational Accidents and Disease, increasing their influence on the leave procedures related to accidents at work. In September 2015, the government proposed a Royal Decree to give companies with low accident rates a discount of between 5 and 10 per cent in the contributions paid to cover occupational risks, by way of an incentive.
The trade unions do not share the government’s view. “At the CCOO, we are against the proposal. We still have no data on how the current contribution system is working and we don’t think it would be responsible to change it. The reduction in contributions will only benefit big companies and the mutual societies, which report the occupational accidents and diseases. Since it is they that manage which companies are entitled to the bonus and they receive 10 per cent of it, in line with an agreement with the company, we think it will encourage the non-declaration of accidents.”
Spain’s Institute for Health and Safety at Work (INSHT) has, in fact, warned that it could “encourage the under-declaration of accidents”, whilst the Labour and Social Security Inspectorate (ITSS) has complained of the “limited scope for action with regard to the management of the bonus”.
The UGT, for its part, believes this proposal “reinforces a course of action taken by the government that has neither reduced the rate of accidents nor established preventative measures to avoid accidents at work, and is only serving to finance companies, through the reduction of social security contributions”.
With a month to go until the general elections in Spain, repealing or reinforcing the 2012 labour market reform will be one of the most crucial electoral debates.