Spain's Employers Have No Room for Mothers-to-Be

A proposal to tax all women to pay for costs related to maternity leaves was widely denounced, yet, overall, women employees in Spain are discriminated against because they might become pregnant and fired if they do.

Maria Duran Febrer

MADRID (WOMENSENEWS)-In Spain the juggling act between career and family-familiar to working mothers worldwide-begins at pregnancy–-and all too often the expectant mothers are the ones left holding the ball.

Now, a prestigious pro-business think tank has complicated things further with a proposal that critics say amounts to making working women pay for being pregnant.

The idea-docking women's pay to create a fund that would defray maternity leave costs-drew howls of protest from across the political spectrum, the government and women's groups when it was presented on Nov. 29. It was quickly withdrawn.

The think tank, a Madrid-based organization called the Business Circle, engaged in some frantic damage-control, saying its initial pitch had been poorly presented, misunderstood and would be retooled soon.

Its president, Manuel Azpilicueta, tendered his resignation on Dec. 11, although the board of directors declined to accept it. Critics say his move was merely theatrics designed to ease the public outcry. Women's groups have responded by urging a boycott of the Spanish companies represented on the board.

Uproar Places Spotlight on Status of Women Employees

Still, even if not much comes of the whole fiasco, women's groups say the original proposal has at least served to shine a spotlight on one particularly sad patch of the Spanish workplace: the struggle of women-pregnant or not-to get and keep jobs and the difficulties nearly all women employees face because they might become pregnant.

Soledad Ruiz Seguin, director of women's affairs at the General Workers Union, one of Spain's largest labor federations, says the Business Circle proposal reflects a profound belief common among the country's male-dominated business elite that women are costly because they get pregnant.

"What Business Circle essentially has done is express aloud what is really happening out there, and suggest an idea that, as we go into the 21st century, would be inconceivable even in Spain," she said.

The proposal as presented originally was to have employers divert a portion of female workers' pay into a fund which would cover payroll tax contributions the employer has to keep making to the government for new mothers during their 16-week maternity leave.

Women would pay into the fund even if they had no plans to have children or were beyond their childbearing years. The money they chipped in would be returned to them at age 53, with interest.

The reviews of the proposal were scathing.

"It is a retrograde and sexist concept of the role of women in society and in a business," said Rafael Hernando, spokesman for the ruling center-right Popular Party.

Maria Duran Febrer, president of the Association of Women Lawyers, said it was just plain unconstitutional. "It violates the right to equality between men and women and absolutely ignores the social function of reproduction."

Women Have High Unemployment Rate and Low Job Security

She and other activists cited a slew of statistics showing just how hard Spanish women have it when it comes to working. Spain's unemployment rate of about 14 percent breaks down into a 9 percent jobless rate for men and a whopping 20 percent for women.

Women make up just 37.5 percent of the workforce, compared with 45 percent on average in the rest of the European Union, 49 percent in neighboring France and 60 percent in Denmark. Only Italy has a lower figure than Spain.

Another key problem for Spanish women, particularly pregnant ones, is employers' tendency to grant only temporary work contracts of a year or less rather than open-ended ones. They do this because a full-blown contract obliges them to hand out severance pay if a worker is laid off. Many Spanish workers go years working for companies that simply roll over one-year contracts time and time again.

The Labor Ministry says that a full 34 percent of the Spanish workforce has temporary contracts, and Ruiz Seguin says that for every man with such shaky job security there are three women. What is worse, employers use these contracts to weed out women who get pregnant, simply declining to renew their contracts. They don't even have to give an explanation. Many women workers thus live in fear of getting pregnant and losing their jobs.

"In practice, this is a very real danger," Duran Febrer said.

Inquisitive Bosses May Ask Details of Family Planning

Just listen to Belen Martin Gago, a 34-year-old gift shop clerk in the northern city of Santander who was laid off in October 1998 just days after she told her boss she was pregnant with her son Alejandro, now 18 months old.

"I went to her and said I needed to talk to her. She had apparently learned through the grapevine that I was pregnant, and she said, ‘Oh, yes, honey, I need to talk to you too.' I knew then exactly what was coming," Martin Gago said.

In job interviews some Spanish employers even ask women point-blank how old they are, how many children they have and if they plan to have more. Such queries are technically legal, but using the information as the basis for denying a job is not.

Ruiz Seguin said her union is frequently suing employers but that it is very difficult to prove that these kinds of questions have been used in a discriminatory way.

"And often even if the woman wins, all she gets is an award of damages when what she really wants is to work," she said.

Daniel Woolls is a journalist based in Madrid.