Time was ripe for Spain's chem workers to benefit from sector's bonanza - trade union

Source: ICIS News


LONDON (ICIS)--The new collective bargaining agreement for Spanish chemicals workers had to include healthy wage increases after years of moderate rises and as the industry goes through a boom, according to the head of chemicals at Spain’s second largest trade union.

Jose Carlos Ruiz at trade union UGT, which together with CCOO signed the collective bargaining agreement with trade group FEIQUE, said that the 2.5% annual increase in the triennium 2018-2020 was only fair after chemicals emerged as one of the best performing industrial sectors in the country post the 2008 crisis.

The agreement also enables paid-for training for workers in order to train them in “the challenges of the future” regarding digitisation and introduced a clause to tackle salary inequality related to gender.

The final outcome of the months-long negotiations came after a stellar year for the Spanish chemical industry, with sales rising by 7% to €63bn, with more than half of these exports – a healthier path of growth, according to Ruiz.

“The chemical industry has consolidated as one the strongest manufacturing sectors in Spain. Despite that, during the previous [collective bargaining agreements] we accepted very moderate increases, or none, in order to help the sector come afloat,” said Ruiz.

“We have been discussing increases for these three years between 2.3% and 2.5%, but it was only fair that the upper range prevailed in the end: workers need to feel the benefits of this strong recovery.”

Spanish inflation stood at 2.1% in May due to the latest spike in crude oil prices, but core inflation – which excludes energy and other items with more price volatility – still stood at a more moderate 1.1%, supporting a recovery in purchase power for chemical workers.

Moreover, Ruiz said not everything is as rosy as the main headline figures for the industry, released by FEIQUE.

For instance, while chemical productivity has sharply improved, Ruiz said this had occurred on the back of a reduction of workforce – the levels of employment are only about to reach those of the pre-crisis levels.

“If the total workforce within the industry has decreased but sales and volumes have gone up, you get an increase in overall productivity, and it was time for workers to be participant in this,” he said.

UGT and CCOO represent more than 80% of chemical workers in Spain, according to figures from both trade unions.

Ruiz conceded that workers may have had doubt about the paid-for, outside-working hours training the new collective bargaining agreement contemplates.

Under the terms of the deal, workers will have eight hours of training this year, 16 hours in 2019 and 32 hours from 2020 onwards.

“However, we demanded that the training courses are outlined in agreement with the workers’ representatives, because we wanted to make sure the course are really to train employees in the challenges of digitisation and industry 4.0,” said Ruiz.

FEIQUE agreed to that demand.

The parties also agreed that companies with more than 150 employees would have to have in place plans against salary discrimination based on gender, with a workers' representative appointed to oversee the development of those plans.

Legally, Spanish companies only have the obligation to establish those plans whether they have more than 250 employees.

In a more general view of how the Spanish economy is faring after the steep depression which followed the housing crash in 2008, Ruiz said the recovery was welcomed after years of belt tightening – from companies to consumers to public authorities – but that the headline macroeconomic figures need to be analysed carefully.

For instance, while Spain has been tipped as the southern European miracle of late, with GDP growth of over 3% in 2017 and unemployment down from a peak of 25% to the current 15%, Ruiz said that a key measure of a healthy labour market was still lagging behind the pre-crisis highs.

“Social security contributions are still lower than in 2008 – that showed that despite the millions of jobs created in the last four years; many of them are part time, or just a few hours a week. While that would take a workers out of the unemployment list, his or her jobs can be hardly considered secure,” said Ruiz.

Indeed, after a recovery that owes a lot to moderation in salary growth, even the employers’ organisation is arguing that Spain needs a pay rise.

On 26 June, the director general at FEIQUE Juan Antonio Labat said in an interview with ICIS that the legal minimum wage should stand at €1,000/month in net terms at least by 2020. Currently, the figure stands at €860/month.

Equally, Ruiz said it was urgent the new Spanish government formed earlier in June repealed the labour reform passed in 2012 that gave employers the upper hand in wages negotiations, allowing them to freeze or lower remuneration if they could justify losses.

Giving them freedom to pull out from collective bargaining agreements, Ruiz argued, has caused low-quality employment and sharp salary decreases.

“Workers’ rights have been dented – a lot of the growth in employment rates has come from forcing workers to go part time. Companies who unilaterally have pulled out from collective bargaining agreements decreased salaries between 15% and 20% with the excuse that without those decreases they would have to file for insolvency,” said Ruiz.

“It has been a tough period and it’s time for workers to regain some rights.”

Picture source: UGT

Interview article by Jonathan Lopez