As most people are well aware, Spain and the country’s labour market in particular have been deeply hit not only by the economic and political crisis but also by austerity measures. The rise in unemployment has been dramatic, as has the rise in social inequality and the growing risk of poverty: the rate of unemployment has risen from 8.2% in 2008 to 26% in 2013 and 24% in 2014.
This Great Recession is affecting women and men differently, and it has had an impact on a number of existing gender imbalances. Some gender gaps have been reduced (at least quantitatively speaking), but more importantly there are others that have actually increased. As many authors have highlighted, recessions always lead to a worsening of work conditions for female employees. Women take longer than men to find their way out of unemployment crises and, in addition to that, they also have to contend with lower wages, more precarious jobs, more part-time jobs and a greater presence in the informal economy.
However, since 2012 several key analysts, including governmental experts, have stressed that a sort of convergence between the situation being faced by both men and women with regards to employment and unemployment is taking place. It is true that the reality for women on the Spanish labour market has changed considerably when compared with the situation in the past. If we look at the last decade, we can see that the number of women deciding to enter the labour market has risen from 40% in 2002 to 53.3% in 2013, increasing even during the worst years of the crisis. Moreover, we cannot deny that the fall in the employment rate of women has been less severe than that of men. If we look more closely at unemployment rates, we can see that between 2006 and 2013 the unemployment rate for men increased from 6.4% to 25.8%, while for the same period the development of unemployment among women experienced a rise from 11.3% in 2006 to 27% in 2013.
These data undoubtedly show a reduction in the gender gap with regards to the labour market entry process. But it is also evident that this phenomenon has fundamentally taken place not because of an improvement in the situation for women but due to a worsening of the situation for men. Moreover, when we examine the statistics, we can see that nowadays men’s level of employment is recovering more rapidly than that of women. In fact, after reaching an unemployment peak in 2013, the male rate has decreased by two points over the course of a year while the female unemployment rate is, on the contrary, increasing again. This is not a phenomenon exclusively related to the Spanish labour market; this is an international trend. As the ILO has pointed out, “the beginning of the crisis saw a moderate closing of the gender unemployment gap, mainly because job losses were concentrated in male-dominated industries”. In fact, the actual slight recovery process in employment is mostly happening in sectors where predominantly men are employed (for instance, construction), reopening the gender gap.
But unemployment is not the most pressing problem facing the Spanish labour market and its female workers. The precarious situation workers find themselves in is here to stay – and this is especially true for women.
We could define “precariousness” as “the set of material and symbolic conditions that determine life uncertainty in relation to the sustained access to essential resources for the full development of life” (Precarias a la Deriva, A la deriva por los circuitos de la precariedad femenina, Madrid: Traficantes de Sueños, 2004). As its authors point out, this definition is dynamic: it reflects a situation but also describes the traditional condition of women in the capitalist labour market. This condition, vulnerability, is nowadays shared by many male and female workers.
Precarious work is not only a consequence of a set of factors but also a tool used by employers to displace risks and responsibilities to workers. Precarious work, performed both in the formal and the informal economies, is characterized by uncertainty and insecurity caused by, for instance: temporary contracts, temporary work agencies, part-time work, training contracts, low wages, low pensions, and even difficulties joining a union and accessing collective bargaining rights or the majority use by women of existing conciliation measures, and the lack of effective co-responsibility measures.
Every labour law reform since 2010 has worsened these examples of precariousness, and we should remember that these reforms have been done following specific country recommendations dictated by the Council of the European Union. Upon closer examination of the main “precarious” categories being raised, we discover that women have more training contracts (28,880 training contracts between 2012 and 2014 for women and 13,700 for men) and more part time work (in 2013 26.28% of female recruitment took place under a part-time contract; 73.35% of total part-time contracts were given to women). Moreover, the salary gap in Spain went from 16.1% to 19.3% between 2008 and 2013, and the average retirement pension amounts to EUR 1,288 for men and EUR 874 for women. Together with these employment conditions, we find that maternity leave is mostly taken by women whilst less than 2% of men opt to take parental leave. In Spain workers also have access to recognized paternity leave, however, this leave only lasts 13 days. The gender divide is similar if we observe the use of certain forms of leave to take care of children or relatives. In 2013 94.5% of those who were able to take leave in order to take care of their children were women. Among those who took leave in order to provide care for relatives, 85.2% of them were women.
This situation clearly shows that old Spanish public policies aimed at achieving equality have failed and that new policies in line with austerity measures are worsening gender discrimination. Overcoming this situation demands stronger steps. Legally speaking, it demands a deep change in our constitutional and legal framework to obtain recognition and respect for the rights of workers and to remove sexual division of work both de jure and de facto, extracting the real barriers we find in the behavior of employers and workers. In order to do so, constitutional and legal provisions should, for instance, be oriented, on the one hand, towards avoiding precariousness, implementing guarantees to ensure work in conditions of dignity and stability, with special protection being provided to those categories of workers already discriminated against (in this sense, Izquierda Unida and the Foundation for a Europe of Citizens are developing a “job guarantee” proposal); on the other hand, it is necessary to implement provisions that enable us to promote co-responsibility in care work at a constitutional level in order to modify the sexual division of work. These two conditions could be achieved through a constituent process, which is one of the most important political proposals we are pursuing in Spain.