As Spain suffered a general strike yesterday, in opposition to the severe austerity measures, once again the mainstream news outlets choose to largely ignore the protests. Buried deep amongst the torrent of news relating to the Eurozone crises, there is one aspect that hardly ever merits a mention, the human angle.
Whilst countries such as the UK have (so far) escaped the viciousness of the austerity measures put in place by their governments, in order to meet pre-defined deficit reduction plans, other countries have been brought to their knees. What should be of concern is just how determined and united the majority of the mainstream media appear to be in deliberately ignoring the plight of European citizens in certain areas of: Spain, Italy and Greece. Up to ten million workers, approximately half of Spain’s workforce, have shown equal determination by withdrawing their labour today.
Picketers blockaded wholesale markets in Madrid, Barcelona and other regional capitals in the early hours of Wednesday, throwing eggs and vegetables at lorries attempting to deliver produce. Shops on Madrid’s main street the Gran Via were forced to close after protesters staged a march up the street at midday chanting “strike, strike”. Rubbish was left uncollected, leaflets produced by the unions urging workers to stay at home littered the streets. Scuffles broke out between police and strikers at factory gates across Spain, reports suggest at least 15 people were injured nationwide.
Major demonstrations were called outside banks and government offices in cities throughout the day with the biggest expected in central Madrid at 6.30pm. Spanish unions said 10 million, more than half the workforce, joined the action and claimed the first general strike in eight years was an “unquestionable success”.
Perhaps it’s the location of the areas worse hit and their distances from the major capitals that causes the international press to ignore their plight, but they don’t have to dig that deep in order to uncover some extremely worrying trends regarding the future of not only the local economies but also the scarred society that could be left in ruins once this Eurozone crisis is over. If it is to be the next ‘shoe to drop’ then Spain’s default and bankruptcy could make Greece’s predicament look like pocket money and there are worrying signs that the contagion has already spread.
Spain’s official unemployment rate is circa 22%, or 4.2 million. However, like many mixed methodology data measurements it’s subject to interpretation and could be higher given the vast swathes who have simply given up looking for work. Youth unemployment statistics are impossible to establish, but unemployment for adults under the age of 25 is now put at 45%, close on half of young adults are unemployed, a far bigger percentage than Greece were the corresponding number is still an equally shocking 30% for adults below the age of 29 and 16.1% as a total unemployment figure. The ratings agency Moody’s has warned that Spain’s regions, which account for half of all public spending, will not meet their deficit reduction targets for this year.
Moratalla in south-east Spain is in a deep financial hole. The local government used the petrol station there to fill up their official vehicles to dustbin lorries. But it has not paid for that fuel for a year, creating up a €42,000 bill. Jose Antonio explains on the forecourt of his family-run garage; “They say they’ve got no money, but the debt is intolerable now. We can’t serve anyone else from the town hall until they pay us what they owe. It’s a disgrace.”
Elderly men and women play dominoes and cards at a day-care centre, or work with therapists on memory games designed for children. The centre is run by the town hall, but like all public employees in the area the women who work there have not been paid their salaries for five months. Director Candida Marin explains;
“The situation is extremely serious. We’re having to borrow money off each other; even off our parents. We’re just living from day to day. The staff stay on mainly out of loyalty. The fact is, Moratalla is almost penniless.The town hall is in trouble, and has to tighten its belt. It has to cut all unnecessary spending.”
The cuts might put pressure on vital social services. Fees for the town’s public nursery have already doubled. The day-care centre was built during Spain’s illusory economic boom and outside stands the framework and shells of two unfinished blocks of flats symbolic of how the boom went bust.
As tax revenue to the regions fell, spending on education and health still increased. The number of public employees soared. The level of regional debt more than doubled from 2007-2010, putting additional pressure on government efforts to cut Spain’s overall budget deficit and convince investors the country won’t follow Greece in needing a bailout.
Moratalla’s mayor blames his Socialist Party predecessor for what he calls the “critical” situation. The 28.5m euros worth of debt he inherited after winning local elections in May was twice what he had expected. So he has made a series of dramatic spending cuts. Antonio Garcia Rodriguez explains; “Anything that is not essential, we don’t do. The police don’t conduct routine patrols by car anymore. They go on foot to save fuel and only take the car when the situation requires it.”
The town hall is no longer cleaned every day. Ten out of 90 members of staff were made redundant. Those kept on had their mobile phones cut off. The municipal pool remained closed over the summer and the fate of future town fiestas looks bleak. But the mayor says he still needs emergency credit to stay afloat, and he is sure Moratalla is not the only town in trouble. “We have brought our situation here to public attention. Perhaps other towns have not done so. They need to disclose their situation”
In Albacete, to the north, the power company cut the supply to municipal-owned buildings last week, becoming impatient that the local government was simply ignoring its million-euro debt. The library and swimming pool were plunged into darkness and remain closed.
Further west in Huelva, an entire town’s police force went on sick leave after four months without pay. Almost all of the entire police force of a small town in southern Spain have gone on sick leave in a dispute over payments. Fourteen policemen from Valverde del Camino say they are psychologically unfit for work after not receiving their salaries for four months. They spent the day staging a sit-in protest at the town hall, instead of working. However, they deny they are on strike, as that is illegal for police. It is the latest manifestation of a major problem in Spain, where the economic crisis has left many town councils and local governments with debts they say they are unable to pay.
We’re living on credit – getting help from our mothers, fathers, brothers, whoever” – Jose Manuel Gonzalez police officer. Finally, the patience of policemen in Valverde del Camino was worn out, 14 out of a total force of 16 officers signed off sick, producing doctors’ notes saying they were in no psychological state to work. There are only 13,000 residents in the town, in far south-western Spain. But successive mayors there have run up a staggering $74m (£47m) in debt: that’s the most in the country per capita. This month, clinics under contract to the Castilla-La Mancha region announced they would stop performing publicly-funded abortions. They are currently owed more than a year’s pay for almost 4,000 terminations.
In Moratalla, much of the money owed is to local small businesses and individuals, metal worker Juan Carlos Llorente has metal dustbin parts and park benches lying around his workshop, ordered by the town hall and never paid for.
They owe me 15,000 euros and that’s an awful lot for me. I have a wife and two children, a mortgage, loans and a car to pay for from this business. The future looks very bleak.
Just how bleak that future will be will depend on whether or not the markets come hunting for Spain’s debt in the same manner Greece was attacked.