Unemployment reform may have adverse effects on women

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In May 2002, the Spanish government approved a Royal Decree reforming unemployment benefit and public employment services, prompting trade unions to call a one-day general strike on 20 June. Statistical evidence suggests that some elements of the reform may have adverse effects on the position of unemployed women

On 24 May 2002, the the conservative People's Party (Partido Popular, PP) government passed a Royal Decree-Law on on 'urgent measures to reform the unemployment protection system and improve employability', which is now being considered by parliament (ES0206210F). The trade unions are strongly opposed to the government's measures, and the majority union confederations, the Trade Union Confederation of Workers' Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO) and the General Workers' Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT), together with smaller union organisations such as the Workers' Trade Unionist Confederation (Unión Sindical Obrera, USO), called a one-day general strike on 20 June 2002 - the first general strike since the PP came to power (ES0206204N). According to the unions, the government's refusal to negotiate the content of the unemployment reform was an important factor in the strike call. The most controversial aspects of the reform include the following:

  • restrictive changes in the criteria for entitlement to unemployment benefit for some groups of workers - agricultural workers and workers on 'fixed-discontinuous' (fijos discontinuos) employment contracts (ie contracts which involve work only at particular times of the year);
  • the abolition of 'interim wages' (salarios de tramitación). Workers who are dismissed and take a case of unfair or unjustified dismissal to court currently have their wages paid by the employer until the court issues its judgment. In future, they will be considered as unemployed during this period and receive only unemployment benefit; and
  • new requirements that people receiving unemployment benefit must accept 'suitable jobs' that are offered to them within a certain geographical area.

According to the majority trade unions, these measures will make it more difficult to obtain unemployment benefit and force unemployed people to accept jobs, regardless of the characteristics and conditions of the work.

Effects on women

The importance of the government's reform for the living and working conditions of the Spanish labour force is clear. Spain has the highest rate of unemployment in the European Union - 14.1% compared with an average of 8.9% in the 11 countries of the 'euro-zone' and 8.2% in all 15 Member States. Unemployment in Spain affects particularly women - with a rate of 20.6% compared with 10.9% in the euro-zone and 9.7% in the whole EU - and people of both sexes under the age of 25 - a rate of 26.2% compared with 17.1% in the euro-zone and 16.2% in the whole EU (all these figures refer to 2000 and are taken from the chapter Les hommes et les femmes en Europe in the 2002 Eurostat yearbook). There is also a very high rate of temporary employment in the Spanish labour market (ES0109201F).

An initial analysis suggests that the government's reforms may have a particular impact on unemployed women, notably in terms of the new provisions on unemployment benefit and the requirements to accept employment offered.

According to data from the 2000 Survey of the Active Population (Encuesta de Población Activa, EPA), women represent 58.4% of unemployment in Spain. However, they only represent 47.7% of all persons who receive some type of unemployment benefit - see table 1 below. Non-contributory benefits form a large part of the unemployment benefits received by women, applying to 59.5% of all women receiving some type of benefit. Particularly significant is the fact that 25.4% of female benefit recipients receive benefit linked to the scheme for casual agricultural workers. In other words, one out of every four women receiving benefit receives one of the benefits directly related to one of the most controversial aspects of the government's reform. The reform could thus place this group of unemployed women in a situation of greater vulnerability than at present.

Table 1. Unemployment benefit recipients according to type of benefit, by sex, 2000 (annual averages)
Type of unemployment benefit Men Women Total
. No. % No. % No. %
Contributory 247,496 45.4 199,182 40.0 446,678 42.8
All non-contributory 295,691 54.3 296,330 59.6 592,021 56.8
Of which: . . . . . .
Non-contributory benefit 187,823 34.5 170,028 34.2 367,851 35.3
Non-contributory benefit for casual agricultural workers 97,868 18.0 126,302 25.4 224,170 21.5
Total 545,052 100.0 497,613 100.0 1,042,665 100.0

Source: Drawn up by author on basis of INEBASE Anuario Estadístico de España.

With regard to the new requirements on unemployed people to accept suitable jobs offered, the EPA figures indicate that both sexes have a high degree of willingness to accept any job - see table 2 below. Most men and women surveyed state that they would accept a job even if it meant: changing occupation (72.1%); having an income lower than is appropriate to their qualifications (53.9%); or taking a job at a lower category than expected (60.1%). The government feels that there is a pool of jobs that are not being filled due to the resistance of workers to give up unemployment benefit by taking a job that does not meet all their expectations, and the Royal Decree thus targets reluctance for the three reasons cited, in order to favour 'employability'. The figures suggest that this resistance does not seem to exist, if one also takes into account the fact that not all unemployed people receive unemployment benefit (ES9810183F) (the gross rate of coverage of unemployment benefit among the unemployed is 55.5% and the net rate 67.5%, according to Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs figures for April 2002).

Table 2. Circumstances in which unemployed people would accept a job, by sex, 2000
. Both sexes Men Women
. No. % No. % No. %
Total unemployed 2,370,400 100 980,700 100 1,389,700 100
Would you accept a job involving a change of residence?
Yes 563,500 23.8 307,600 31.4 255,900 18.4
No 1,235,500 52.1 403,800 41.2 831,500 59.8
Don't know 571,600 24.1 269,300 27.5 302,300 21.8
Would you accept a job involving a change of occupation?
Yes 1,708,100 72.1 696,700 71.0 1,011,400 72.8
No 227,400 9.6 100,100 10.2 127,400 9.2
Don't know 439,900 18.3 183,900 18.8 251,000 18.1
Would you accept a job with an income lower than appropriate to your qualifications?
Yes 1277,600 53.9 527,700 53.8 749,900 54.0
No 422,300 17.8 175,800 17.9 246,500 17.7
Don't know 670,600 28.3 277,200 28.3 393,400 28.3
Would you accept a job in a category lower than expected?
Yes 1,423,700 60.1 591,700 60.3 832,000 59.9
No 314,500 13.3 126,400 12.9 188,100 13.5
Don't know 632,200 26.7 262,500 26.8 369,600 26.6

Source: INEBASE, INE 2002.

However, as indicated by table 2, there is one point on which workers show great opposition: geographical mobility. According to EPA figures, a change of residence in order to find a job is accepted by only 23.8% of the unemployed population, and only 18.4% of unemployed women. The level of acceptance is even lower for older workers. In fact, only among people under the age of 25 is there a certain acceptance of this possibility. Persons over 25, especially married women, are the most reluctant to change their place of residence, or to deal with the additional burden of a long journey to work. The responsibility of housework that falls almost exclusively on women, the lack of public support for this work and the need for the support of the family in order to carry it out, do not improve willingness to accept geographic mobility, even if it does not necessarily involve a change of residence. It is therefore not surprising that the government toned down its initial proposal to penalise unemployed people who would not accept a job less than 50 kilometres from their homes, or requiring a return journey of less than two hours. The Royal Decree actually imposes a radius of 30 kilometres and a journey of two hours.


Despite the modifications made to the final text of the Royal Decree, the measures it contains may force women — and particularly those with family responsibilities — 'voluntarily' to leave the labour market and join the 'inactive' population or go into 'underground' employment. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that Spain is the EU country with the lowest percentage of homes in which both partners work (according to figures issued by Eurostat in May 2002) and with the lowest fertility rate. The reform will not help to remedy this situation. (Pilar Carrasquer, QUIT-UAB)

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