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Europe

For Spanish auto workers, jobs come at a price

© Clément Perrouault

Text by Adeline PERCEPT

Latest update : 2012-12-21

With the car industry offering rare prospects for investment in crisis-hit Spain, unions and workers are coming under intense pressure to accept working conditions previously deemed unthinkable.

A glimmer of hope could be emerging in crisis-wracked Spain. At least that's what some analysts dare to say following a recent wave of investments by major car manufacturers.

On Wednesday, Japan's Nissan became the latest carmaker to raise the prospect of new jobs in the sector, announcing that its Barcelona plant may be selected to build one of its new models in 2014.

The 130-million-euro investment would see 1,000 new jobs created - a much-needed boon in a country where one in four are unemployed. But the good news is dependent on one key condition: that trade unions make “an effort to be more flexible and solve the problem of salary costs”, said Frank Torres, CEO of Nissan Motor Ibérica.

With the economy deep in recession and unemployment showing no sign of receding, it is likely that the unions at the Nissan factory in Barcelona will accede to the request.

Others have already agreed to concessions that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Unions at Renault have even accepted a deal for new workers to be paid 800 euros a month, 30 percent less than the existing wage. In return, the French manufacturer has promised to invest in its factories in the cities of Valladolid, Palencia and Seville, creating 1,300 jobs.

'Total lack of solidarity'

Union leader Javier Carnero likens the struggle to remain competitive to a full-out war. © Clément Perrouault

“During the negotiations, they used all the arguments possible to put pressure on us, notably workers’ fear of ending up unemployed ”, says Jesus Janez-Hermoso, member of the CCOO union in Valladolid.

Ford, Seat and PSA have also invested in their Spanish factories during the past months. At the Seat plant in Martorell (Catalonia), union member Javier Carnero compares negotiations to full-out war on a European scale.

“Every union in every factory is defending its own guys,” he said. “And there’s a total absence of solidarity. At the end of the day, either we have to suffer the consequences or others have to. And of course I defend the interests of workers here who have elected me and whom I represent.”

In order to keep production at their factory, workers at Seat have accepted a system of “banking hours”. They have to work longer hours when demand is high and fewer hours when things are slow.

The greater flexibility accepted by Spanish workers has raised alarm in neighbouring France, where unionists feel they’re fighting the war with unequal weapons.

According to a recent study by Coe-Rexecode, salaries in Spanish manufacturing have fallen by 9.8 percent since 2008. Meanwhile, they’ve increased by 5.3 percent in France.

'Adapt or die'

Car parts supplier Emilio Orta says the industry must "adapt or die". © Clément Perrouault

Emilio Orta, the head of car parts supplier MetTecno 2000, which is based in the Valencia area, has a clear idea of what Spanish manufacturers need to do.

“We’ve been placed in the following situation: either you adapt or you die,” he said.

Orta has reached a deal with his employees, who have accepted flexible hours similar to those applied at Seat. He says workers have changed their mentality in Spain.

“People really value their job now. And that’s why they are prepared to reinvent themselves, to train themselves. They accept whatever it takes to hang on to their job”, he says.

If the case of Spain's auto industry is anything to go by, the country's path out of crisis is set to be a slow and painful process.

Date created : 2012-12-21

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