Anabel Casas is a clerk who works in a company that imports IT hardware and is one of the nearly one million Catalans who will be going back to work this Tuesday, following the Spanish government’s decision to ease the lockdown restrictions. Ms Casas’ employer is classed as a non-essential service provider, one of many which are now being allowed to get back to work after the eight-day paid leave —to be made up— came to an end on Thursday. But she will only be going back to work on a part-time basis, as her working hours will be cut by 50 percent from Tuesday as a result of the temporary work contract suspension (ERTO) filed by her employer.
“Truth be told, I’m not looking forward to going back to work in the current circumstances. I feel like I do whenever I must step out of the house to shop for food”, she says. Her company has split the staff up into shorter shifts than usual and will provide them with masks, gloves and hand sanitiser. “There is a one-and-a-half metre distance between staff at work”, says Casas. That is the separation that the Catalan authorities have established by law so that workers can stay safe from the coronavirus.
The Chamber of Commerce has estimated that between 800,000 and 1m workers will be going back to work on Tuesday, the exceptions being staff who have been laid off, are on sick leave, teleworking or must remain on lockdown. The two sectors with the largest workforce returning to work are industry and construction, even though transport, logistics and office workers —like Ms Casas— will also be going back in droves.
Spanish trade union UGT expects 200,000 construction workers to go back to work on Tuesday. Architect Carlos Hernández will be joining them. He is currently working on a project in Palafolls and Mataró, north of Barcelona city. He says that “luckily there aren’t many of us on the building site and so we will be able to keep the safety distance. Besides, we’ll be wearing masks and gloves”.
Unlike Ms Casas, who was furloughed and is expected to make that time up, Mr Hernández has carried over eight days from his 2019 holiday entitlement. He admits that “before the total lockdown my daughters used to get on my case because I’d be going to work. But, to be honest, I’m more afraid of shopping in the supermarket than jumping in the car to commute to the construction site and back”. He insists that “there aren’t many of us there and things are very much under control”.
However, not the whole construction sector has been allowed to return to work. A decree published last Sunday by the Spanish government in Spain’s official gazette, the BOE (Boletín Oficial del Estado), forbids any construction work in buildings “where there are other people who are not themselves involved in the construction project”. Likewise, the Catalan government have announced that only urgent public works will resume.
Catalonia’s Employment Minister, Chakir El Homrani, has insisted that the Catalan government does not approve of the decision to send so many employees back to work. “We do not endorse it, but we will have to deal with it”, he stated. And he went on to note that only 160 employment inspectors will be available to ensure that companies comply with health and safety standards. He admitted that they are “aware of the shortage of inspectors”.
The two main trade unions, CCOO and UGT, have warned that only those workers who can safely commute to work and can be guaranteed a sanitary workplace should be expected to return to their jobs. Camil Ros, the leader of UGT in Catalonia, stated that “companies should not expect staff to return to work unless their personal safety can be guaranteed”. Catalan union Intersindical-CSC slammed the decision to ease the lockdown and called it “reckless” and proof that the Spanish government “cares more about the economy and their motherland than about public health”.
As for employers’ groups, the president of Foment del Treball, Josep Sánchez Llibre, spoke in favour of non-essential companies resuming their activities. In a TV interview with Catalan public broadcaster TV3 he warned that “we need to brace ourselves for what’s coming”, but he did emphasise that the return to work must be done safely. Pimec spoke along similar lines. In contrast, the president of the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce, Joan Candell, was much more critical and he pointed out that people shouldn’t be expected to go back to work if test kits and masks aren’t readily available on the day.
A number of sectors that are reopening this Tuesday have put together a protocol to prevent the spread of the virus in the workplace. A case in point are the automotive and construction industries. In the case of the former, employers’ groups have explained that, even though the safety of their workforce is their priority, they cannot allow “this human and public health tragedy to become, in the mid term, a catastrophe for the economy and society”. Their protocol includes measuring staff’s temperature on arrival, plus rules to sort out the coming and going of workers and the enforcement of a safety distance. They also detail safety measures to manage common areas, such as the canteen and changing rooms, as well as the obligation to clean and sanitise facilities.
In the construction sector, employers and unions have agreed to take a number of actions, such as setting turns to enter the premises, working through midday so staff can get off earlier, adding breaks to rest and more stringent sanitation measures. Furthermore, they intend to use respirators whenever two workers must be within less than two metres of each other.
The one million workers returning to their jobs will be joining the 1.3 million employed in essential activities who were never furloughed. The rest of the workforce must remain on lockdown for now.