A supporter of Partido Popular

Unemployment, the key issue defining the election on Sunday, stands at 21.6% , the highest in the EU after Greece. Photograph: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez

He has taken on stints as a stable hand, been a door-to-door salesman and set up stages for local concerts: rarely does David Pena turn down a job. “In the past two a half years, I’ve probably had about 135 contracts,” said Pena. Most of them last between one and three days. “It’s a bit tiresome not to ever have anything stable.”

Tiresome is perhaps an understatement. The 33-year-old’s disjointed CV stands out as an extreme example of a growing section of Spanish society made up of those ousted from the workforce during the economic crisis and now struggling to land anything but precarious short-term contracts.

On Sunday Spaniards will cast their ballots in one of the tightest races in the country’s recent history. The result promises to offer a glimpse of the national mindset as Spain emerges from a prolonged economic downturn that sent unemployment soaring, triggered painful austerity measures and saw thousands of families evicted.

The wide brush of corruption has sent Spaniards’ trust in politicians and institutions plunging in recent years, and given rise to a crop of national newcomers promising a better future. For many, however, the key issue in this campaign is jobs. Unemployment in Spain stands at 21.6% – the highest in the EU after Greece.

Mariano Rajoy, the country’s current prime minister, has based his re-election campaign on the economy and its fragile recovery, pointing to more than 1m jobs created in the past two years and one of the fastest growth rates in the eurozone. Polls suggest that his conservative People’s party (PP) will remain the largest party after Sunday’s election, even it looks likely to lose its majority.

A man walks past a giant poster of Spain’s PM and PP leader Mariano Rajoy

A man walks past a giant poster of Spain’s PM and PP leader Mariano Rajoy. One in five people in Spain are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, the EU says. Photograph: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez

Rajoy’s critics point to the dire situation still facing many Spaniards, who, like Pena, have been forced to string together a salary from a series of low-paying contracts that offer scant benefits.

Temporary workers now make up more than a quarter of the workforce in Spain. Far from just seasonal work, temporary contracts have become more common among hospital workers, teachers and other public servants. Statistics suggest that short-term work is the definitive feature of the new jobs being created,making up about 90% of the contracts signed this year so far in Spain, with about one in four lasting seven days or less.

Pena’s worst contract was for a job that lasted 16 hours, for which he was paid €30 to clean out stables. “I had no gloves, no boots and I didn’t protest,” he said. “I didn’t want to lose the job.”

He lives with his mother – “thank God my mother has a house” – on the outskirts of the northern Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. Their only reliable income is his mother’s monthly €400 disability cheque. “With the little she gets from her pension and the little that I make, we get by,” he said. “We can’t take vacations or spend a lot, but we get by.”

A computer scientist by training, the last time Pena had an interview in his field was this summer, among 600 others who showed up for 10 positions. “There’s just not a lot of work in that field,” he said.

It was not always like this. Three years ago, Pena had a regular gig as a baggage handler at the local airport. After the housing market crashed and the economy began to sour, the PP took power from the governing Socialists. Months later Rajoy pushed forward with a sweeping labour market reform that made it easier and cheaper to fire workers while creating incentives for hiring. Pena was let go abruptly. “They put 200 of us workers on the street with nothing,” he said.

For many of those who managed to hold onto their jobs, the reform triggered a drop in wages, said Manuel Lago, an economist with the Workers’ Commission trade union. Today about 2.2 million of the country’s 18 million workers earn less than 60% of the average wage.

Lower wages helped make Spanish companies more competitive and boosted exports. But it came at a tremendous cost to workers. “We now have a new reality of the working poor – people who have jobs but can’t afford to live independently on their salary,” Lago said.

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias (centre, beige top) attends an election campaign rally in Seville, southern Spain.

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias (centre, beige top) attends an election campaign rally in Seville, southern Spain. Photograph: Marcelo Del Pozo

In the run-up to Sunday’s election, jobs have become a key political battleground. The anti-austerity party Podemos has vowed to scrap Rajoy’s labour reforms, while the Socialists say they will replace it with an agreement forged by business and labour unions. Centre-right Ciudadanos promises to ease the wide gap between well-paid workers on open-ended contracts and low-earning contract workers by introducing a single employment contract.

Rajoy has countered with tax breaks aimed at encouraging hiring on open-ended contracts. His government has also argued that as the recovery strengthens, the prevalence of temporary contracts will lessen, a suggestion backed by labour ministry figures that show open-ended contracts increased by 13% in November as compared to the same month one year earlier.

“There’s a lot to be done, but the most important thing is that the trend has changed,” Rajoy said last month. “It used to be the case that unemployment went up every day. Now it goes down every day.” His government, who saw unemployment peak at a rate of 27% in 2013, is promising to create 2m jobs in the next four years.

The country’s unemployment figures are clouded by the hundreds of thousands of Spaniards and migrants who have left the country in recent years in hopes of finding jobs abroad. In the first six months of this year, even as the Spanish economy grew at its fastest rate since 2007, more Spaniards moved abroad than at any point since the crisis began, suggesting that the economic turnaround has yet to be felt by many.

The gap between the rich and poor was highlighted last year by the IMF, which said that in recent years the divide had grown faster than any other country in Europe. Both groups emerged very differently from the economic crisis, with the number of millionaires rising by 40%, while the number of Spaniards living in “severe material deprivation” doubled to just over three million people, according to Oxfam. Much of this disparity comes down to spending power, with the bottom 10% of Spanish families experiencing a drop of 13% in real income between 2007 and 2011, compared to a loss of 1.4% for the wealthiest 10%.

In 2013, prompted by rising inequality, Madrid-based NGO Ayuda en Acción(Action Aid) turned its attention to Spain for the first time ever, after more than three decades of fighting inequality in developing countries. “Teachers were telling us that they had kids in their classes who were really suffering, whose families were having trouble paying for basic needs like food,” said Alberto Casado of the group. “Some students were coming to school in the same clothes, whether it was winter or summer … they didn’t have funds to buy good winter shoes or a jacket.”

The observations were backed by figures from the EU, which said one in five people in Spain are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, a number that swells to more than one in three for children. Part of the problem is the high number of Spaniards who have been jobless for more than two years – about 2.5 million people – most of whom have exhausted their job-seeker’s benefits.

Ayuda en Acción now helps to cover the cost of lunch programs, textbooks and school excursions for about 15,000 children in Spain. While politicians are quick to say that the economy is improving, said Casado, “that’s not happening where we are”. He added that it could take years before improvements in the country’s balance of payments or GDP translate into improvements for the country’s most vulnerable.

Regardless of who takes power after Sunday’s election, his group is demanding araft of emergency social measures to address child poverty in Spain. They are also asking politicians to begin realistically addressing the work that still lies ahead for the country. “They can’t be saying that things are fine,” he said. “They’re taking away the attention needed to address what we consider a national emergency.”

[Source:- The Gurdian]

By Adam