Dispute over agricultural unemployment benefit ends

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In January 2003, the Spanish government agreed to repeal a recent reform of the special agricultural unemployment benefit scheme, following trade union protests and the threat of a general strike in the sector. It has now proposed a new type of provision for the casual agricultural workers who were left without benefit after the reform. The unions called off the strike, but still have major objections that may be resolved in the procedures before the relevant legislation is adopted.

In May 2002, the conservative People's Party (Partido Popular, PP) government adopted a labour market and unemployment benefit reform (Law 12-12-2002)(ES0206210F), which was strongly opposed by the trade unions, leading to a general strike in June 2002 (ES0207201N). There were also mobilisations in the agricultural sector, because one part of the reform affected the special agricultural unemployment benefit system. The reform prevented the access of new claimants to the scheme, by making it a condition that casual agricultural workers had to demonstrate that they had received the benefit in the previous three years (2001, 2000 and 1999). Furthermore, the administrative requirements for remaining in the system were also toughened: workers had to prove that they had performed days of work in agriculture ('peonadas') in the last 90 days; and they also lost the right to claim the benefit if they worked for more than three months in another sector of activity. The government felt that the agricultural unemployment benefit scheme created a 'passive' attitude, hindering personal and entrepreneurial initiatives to promote development.

Agricultural workers organised mobilisations in protest and a general strike was called in the sector for 20 January 2002. Following a meeting with the trade unions - the Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO), the General Workers’ Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT) and the Trade Union of Agrarian Workers (Sindicato de Obreros del Campo, SOC) - the Minister of Labour, Eduardo Zaplana, agreed to withdraw the plan - as it has done with much of the rest of its unemployment benefit reform (ES0211206F and ES0212201N). The unions called off the planned general strike.

The government has now proposed a new agricultural benefit scheme. A new 'agricultural income model' (modelo de renta agraria garantiza) will guarantee a 'subjective right' to benefit to casual agricultural workers in Andalusia and Extremadura who have been unable to claim agricultural unemployment benefit since the May 2002 reform. The agricultural income scheme will provide the same level of payments as the benefit scheme (75% of the minimum wage for six months for workers who can prove that they have done 35 days of work in agriculture). It will also guarantee unemployment cover, which means that the National Institute of Employment (Instituto Nacional de Empleo, INEM) will pay the worker's social security contributions while they are claiming agricultural income, which consolidates their right to a pension and sick pay.

This reform will affect 800,000 casual agricultural workers, of whom 600,000 are in Andalusia and Extremadura. Agricultural benefit is an unemployment benefit introduced in 1984 by the then socialist government to deal with problems of strong dependence on agriculture and high unemployment in Andalusia and Extremadura (ES9909252F). To claim this benefit, workers must prove that they have worked 35 days in agriculture ('peonadas'). The current benefit is EUR 330 per month (75% of the national minimum wage) and can be claimed for six months of each year.

The trade unions accept most of the new agricultural income measures put forward by the government, but have not concealed their disagreement with some of them, such as a requirement of 10 years' residence in Andalusia or Extremadura. Also, the income can be claimed on only six occasions and days worked in state-funded municipal works are not counted as 'peonadas'. CC.OO and UGT intend to use all the possibilities of introducing amendments to the proposed scheme during the process before a decree is adopted on the issue, and in the mandatory report which will be issued by the Economic and Social Council (Consejo Económico y Social, CES). Only the SOC union intends to continue with protest mobilisations.

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