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Economic crisis

Spain's traditional long lunch could have its days numbered

APTN

Madrid

11/15/2011

With Europe's economic crisis biting hard, the eurozone's fourth largest economy is saddled with its own myriad of woes, and low productivity is one of them.

  • Iberdrola was the first major Spanish company to introduce a straight 7am to 3pm shift. Photo: EFE

    Iberdrola was the first major Spanish company to introduce a straight 7am to 3pm shift. Photo: EFE

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As a general election fought largely over a failed economy looms and financially embattled Spain looks for ways to reinvent itself, the traditional two-hour lunch could have its days numbered.

With Europe's economic crisis biting hard, the eurozone's fourth largest economy is saddled with its own myriad of woes, and low productivity is one of them.

It's lunch time at the canteen of Spanish utility giant Iberdrola, the hubbub of workers tucking into a wholesome three course meal. These workers however are the exception at Iberdrola.

Iberdrola was the first major Spanish company to introduce a straight 7am to 3pm shift all year round, a practice some companies follow but only in summer. Iberdrola wants to get their employees home earlier, knowing that they will be happier and work better if they scrap the traditional productivity-sucking black hole at midday.

Monica Oviedo, who works in the environmental department at Iberdrola, takes full advantage of the company's policy. She has 3 small children whom she loves to pick up from school. "I nearly always bring in my lunch and eat it in 10 minutes here in the office," she says. "I prefer being able to enjoy the afternoons even if it means eating quickly."

Ramon Castresana, Head of Human Resources at Iberdrola says the company has the lowest numbers of absenteeism in its sector in all of Spain. The company asks that employers commit to work in the morning and use the free afternoon time for errands, doctors appointments and parents- teachers meetings. "This is conciliating work and personal life," Castresana says.

Of the 17 nations that share the euro, Spain is 10th in productivity per hour worked, according to Eurostat, the European Union's statistical agency. The country is groping for ways to recover growth after a housing bubble that largely fuelled the economy went bust three years ago.

Unemployment now stands at 21.5 percent. Debt is piling up everywhere. Even if there is a culture of taking long lunches, there is no Spanish law that mandates workers getting two hours for their midday meal.

Most Spaniards nowadays work too far away from their homes to enjoy another of the celebrated Spanish traditions: the siesta. Economists and advocates of a more American-style 9-to-5 schedule say Spain could benefit from scrapping the long break.

Reform-seekers say people would be more rested and productive if they could clock out earlier. Before next Sunday's election, the private National Commission for the Rationalisation of Spanish Schedules, a lobby group pushing for Spain to make better use of its time has contacted all the major candidates for prime minister to back their call.

"We are fighting for a working day that ends at 4, 5, maximum 6 pm, with flexible starting times, flexible leaving times, that at midday we take back the time dedicated to lunch for 45 to 60 minutes, which we believe is enough time to have a healthy Mediterranean meal," says the commission's president Ignacio Buqueras.

The length of lunch breaks is currently negotiated by unions and companies with many employees finding themselves dragging through the afternoon.

Madrid resident Mercedes Sanchez says the current working hours don't make sense anymore. "It is totally irrational, the opening times of the shops don't match up to the times of the schools. It is totally incompatible with a normal life it is clear that something has to be done about it."

More and more companies are at least taking notice of the benefits of different working hours and considering a switch. But Economics professor Juan Ramon Pin cautions about enforcing a blanket change in working hours for all companies.

"There are other sectors, for example tourism which is of vital importance to the Spanish GDP, which cannot be similar to other areas. It is good to rationalise the working hours but it is better if every business takes its own decision," Pin says.

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