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Spain's Civil Servants Draw Grumbles, And Envy

People queue up at a government job center in Madrid this month. The unemployment rate in Spain now tops 25 percent, but many government workers still enjoy job security and higher wages than their private sector counterparts.
Daniel Ochoa De Olza

Antonio, Domingo and Pepe are old friends in their late 40s and 50s. All unemployed, they meet most mornings for coffee and cigarettes in Madrid's Puerta del Sol square and rant about the government.

The nation's civil service is a particularly attractive target. The men grumble about what they imagine is the life of a government worker — long coffee breaks, siestas and lots of paid time off.

"They earn much more than they're worth," Antonio says. "That's something that's got to change. They earn a lot, and they hardly do anything."

Jobs For Life

Spanish civil servants do earn a lot, compared with their private sector counterparts. Virtually all the best and brightest young graduates want to work for the government, and many are willing to stay on waiting lists for years — without pay — in hopes of snagging a position.

Civil servants took a recent hit when the government decided to cut their holiday bonuses this year, but even so, Spanish public workers are still the envy of their countrymen.

When Spain's economic crisis hit, the private sector immediately started shedding jobs and cutting wages. New labor reforms have made it even easier for companies to do so, and unemployment now tops 25 percent.

In contrast, most public employees still have jobs for life, says economist Gayle Allard of Madrid's IE Business School.

"They have had their wages frozen. Hiring has been frozen. But it's not the kind of severe adjustment you're seeing in the private sector," Allard says. "You hear people say, 'Wait a minute! In my company, we've cut all of our costs 30 percent. What's their problem? We're doing this, why can't they do it?' "

Strong Unions, Strong Numbers

One reason is the civil service's strong union contracts; another is the sheer number of civil servants in Spain. Bureaucrats, doctors, teachers and other public workers amount to 2.6 million people, more than 11 percent of the population. That makes politicians think twice about crossing them.

Spaniards also have a different attitude toward the state. The Pew Research Center recently found that while 6 in 10 Americans say they want to be free of interference from the state, more than 6 in 10 Spaniards say the opposite — that it's the government's job to make sure nobody is in need.

"It's a funny thing," says Allard. "I think Americans ... have a hard time understanding it, because we don't assign such a high value to security. But for Spaniards, that's really, really important."

And it's not just for the security. Last year, civil servants earned 30 percent more, on average, than the rest of Spain's workers.

That wasn't always the case. Sitting in a cafe near his Madrid home, retired public administrator Tomas Garcia Boado, 80, describes living through the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and the military dictatorship that followed.

"We used to have to ration food," Garcia Boado recalls. "Under the dictatorship, being a civil servant was prestigious even if you weren't well paid. It gave you guarantees that you'd be taken care of and have security for the future."

Waiting Years For A Job

Memories like those have shaped the next generation's choices. Lorena Nieva worked in marketing in Madrid for almost a decade before moving back in with her parents in her early 30s to study for a government entrance exam.

"I stayed studying for it probably four or five years," says Nieva, who was also working part of that time. "But ... I couldn't get it because of the crisis."

With a degree in political science and experience in business, Nieva would have been a shoo-in for government work five years ago. But with the economic crisis, only a handful of the thousands who took the entrance exam last year got jobs. So Nieva is back to the private sector, in a temp job at a phone company.

At 36, she's making less money than she ever has — just like many in her generation.

"We are really worried. We don't have any door open for us," Nieva says. "Also, the politicians say constantly that we can go abroad."

For the next few years at least, going abroad may be Nieva's best option.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
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