Precarious employment in public administration criticised

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Employment in the public administrations has continued to grow in Spain in recent years at a rate higher than the EU average, though the proportion of public employees in total employment is still among Europe's lowest, particularly in health and social services. The growth in employment has been accompanied by a major increase in precarious temporary employment, as highlighted by an October 2003 report from the national Ombudsman that links this phenomenon to a deterioration in the quality of service.

The public administration in Spain had 2,460,000 employees at the end of 2002, of which: 524,000 were in the central administration; 1,055,000 in the administration of the regions (autonomous communities); 309,000 in the social security system; and 574,000 in local authorities and other bodies. This figure excludes 200,000 workers in publicly-owned companies. Over the last 20 years, and particularly in the last decade, the number of employees in the regional administrations has increased at the expense of those in the central administration. The number of local authority employees has also increased, but not so greatly. However, the most striking feature in the last few years, during which the People's Party (Partido Popular, PP) has been in government, is that the number of public employees has continued to grow considerably, despite the fact that in the context of the 1997 state budget, the government approved a law to 'reduce public employment'. This meant that for every four civil servants who retired or left the service for other reasons, only one would be replaced.

In the seven years between 1995 and 2001, some 565,000 new jobs were created in the Spanish public administration, health and education, according to a study by the Manpower company. For the period 1997-2002, throughout which the PP was in power, the Bank of Spain (Banco de España) states that there was an increase in public sector jobs of 394,000. Whether one takes the 1995-2001 or 1997-2002 figures, the increase in public sector employment in Spain is the highest in the European Union, with the exception of Ireland. Nevertheless, the proportion of public employment to total employment in Spain, at 16% in 2002, is still one of the lowest in the EU, with some countries showing figures of up to 25%. The difference is particularly striking in such an indicative sector of public welfare as health and the social services: employment in this area makes up 5.2% of total employment in Spain compared with an EU average of 10%.

Quality of employment

With regard to the 'quality' of jobs, the overall rate of temporary employment - the most obvious indicator of precarious employment in Spain - is at present 30%, having fallen from 34% in 1997. The rate stands at 20% in the public sector and 33% in the private sector. The rate has risen by five percentage points in the public sector since the PP came to power (ES0201251F), though it had already reached a very high level during the previous Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE) governments.

This increase in precarious employment is largely due to the government's policy of reducing public sector workforces. The local authorities and regional administrations have continued to increase the services they offer to the citizens, which obviously means more staff, but due to the government's abovementioned restrictions on recruitment they have dramatically increased the number of workers employed temporarily under programmes subsidised by specific budgets from the central administration or from the EU. Among civil servants, they have also increased the number of 'interim' or replacement employees as they are unable to provide them with stable civil service jobs. This explains the large differences in the temporary employment rates between the three levels of administration: 32% in local authorities, 17% in the autonomous authorities, and 16% in the central administration. In response to pressure by the trade unions, since 1999 the government has slightly relaxed the rigid rule of recruiting one civil servant for every four retiring or leaving the service. It has done this in particular in certain areas such as the municipal police, the fire brigade, doctors, researchers, and councils of towns with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants. Furthermore, since 2003, arguably with its sights set on the elections to be held in April 2004, the government has abandoned the 'one for four' recruitment rule and returned to 'one for one'. However, a large body of temporary employment had already been created.

The Ombudsman's Report

After several trade union protests and complaints to the Ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo), in early October 2003 the latter sent to parliament a 547-page report on the high level of precarious public employment due to the 'abuse of temporary employment' and to 'breaches of the law', because the abuse of interim contracts goes against the civil service model designed by the legislator. The report stresses that this excessive use of temporary employment has a negative effect on the public service, and mentions explicitly the cases of health, education and justice as those in which temporary employment can most seriously affect the public service. Excessive turnover in all these cases makes it impossible to carry out sustained high-quality programmes. The report also states that this situation is harmful to public employment, to civil servants whose careers are blocked by the presence of interim workers, and to the interim workers who carry out tasks that require professional stability.

Trade union position

The trade unions are satisfied with the Ombudsman's report because many of the complaints it raises were made by them and they have been fighting precarious employment in the public sector for years. They have criticised this situation year after year, organising mobilisations against it and placing it at the centre of the agreement for the 'modernisation and improvement of the public administration', signed by the government and unions in November 2002 (ES0212106F) and covering 2003 and 2004. This agreement gives great importance to human resources policy and within it to measures aimed at favouring stability in public employment. The first measure taken under the agreement was to remove the obstacles to the replacement of outgoing civil servants. However, it will take time to reduce the rate of temporary employment from 20% to a level that is considered reasonable by the unions - ie suited to the temporary tasks that are required.


For some time, working for the public administration has no longer necessarily meant a secure job. Among both civil servants and 'contracted staff' there is an increasing level of instability. In regional and local authorities this is mainly due to the regulatory restrictions imposed by the central government to reduce expenditure on public services.

Many would approve of a change in the model of public employment with a greater number of contracted staff and fewer civil servants in order to raise the productivity of public employees, which is among the lowest in the EU. However, what is in fact happening is that the stability of public employment is decreasing in line with the trend set by the private sector. Among both civil servants and contracted staff, a second tier has been created with poorer pay conditions - the pay of temporary workers in the public sector increases less than that of other temporary workers because it is laid down by the state budget, which always applies increases below the real increase in the consumer prices index - and worse working conditions. This has no objective justification in terms of the jobs concerned and is damaging the service provided to the citizens.

The fact that the services provided to citizens are inadequate may be the starting point for creating more employment of better quality in certain services. It will also be necessary to change regulations and competences by giving the administrations greater autonomy with regard to their staffing policies. This would avoid what happened recently when the central government protested against the agreements reached by many town councils to introduce a 35-hour working week (ES9902297F), even though this reduction had been negotiated in exchange for greater functional mobility and more hours of attention to the public, which could increase the productivity of public employees. (Fausto Miguélez, QUIT-UAB)

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