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Ranting and Raving

This post is very long. It's not the usual chit chat about something I've done or something that happened to me. I showed it to Maggie for checking. "It's a bit long," she said " And a bit of a rant," "Is it boring," I asked "Well, err, a bit," she said. But it took me hours to write and the typist's chair has made my back ache so I'll be damned if I'm not going to use it.

You have been warned.


Drinking coffee. Huffing with indignation as another phrase sank into an oblivion of overcomplexity. The usual sort of scene in the bar Capitolio for one of my weekly intercambios - the exchange of English for Spanish conversation.

We were talking about Spanish business, attitudes to work and education.

Actually, before I forget, a little episode. We were leaving. We'd been in the bar nearly two hours and drunk just four coffees. The bill came to 3.70€. The person I do the intercambio with likes to go half and half rather than buy in rounds so we faffed around with change for a while before I handed over 4€ and headed for the door. There was consternation, commotion and kerfuffle behind me as my intercambio and the waitress discussed the 30 cent overpayment. "What about the change?" they said. "It's for the tips box," I replied. "He's English," said my intercambio to the waitress. Succinctly explained.

The conversation came in the light of an English language article that I had read about the current Spanish woes. The writers main points were that many young Spaniards are disillusioned because, when it comes to finding a job, who you know is much more important than what you know and if, against the odds, you do find a job, then it was unlikely that your hard work and talent would get you anywhere unless you were also the boss's cousin.  He went on to argue that the normal safety release for frustrated job seekers, starting your own business, was such a bureaucratic nightmare in Spain that it wasn't really an option. The article also suggested that the education system was a tortuous affair where rote learning was still the norm. There was a good dose of Southern Europeans are intrinsically work shy but we'll leave that to the side for now.

Now I've noticed that the tone of the last few posts has been generally quite negative. It may be in my character to moan but then again it may be that I've actually lived here long enough to have the right to complain. Heaven knows I complained loud and long about the UK when I lived there so why not my about my current home? So let's have a look at what the main points of the article and I'll add in a few of my own.

Most of the materials  I use in the office to teach English are written by North Americans. A recurring theme is about job interviews. It seems to me that very few of my students have ever had an interview either to get into college or for work. University seems to be based on test scores and jobs through cronyism -they're called enchufes here - maybe in the family firm or maybe because your dad knows someone who knows someone.

Then there are funcionarios. That is civil servants and local government employees. Until recently this was more or less the dream job for a large number of Spaniards. Reasonable pay, secure tenure, short hours and long holidays. The key to getting one of these jobs is to pass the exam. There are actually a lot of factors and this is a vast oversimplification, but basically the higher your mark the higher you are placed on a list of people suitable for the work. So, you do your exams as a librarian and if there is a need for 50 librarians and you are graded in the top 50 then you are in. You are assigned a library and the day you turn up to start work will be the first time that anyone in the library has seen you; no interview and no other selection process other than the exam mark.

If you don't have a powerful brother in law and working in the public sector isn't for you then you could try to set up your own business. If you're going to do it right the process is very slow. Lots of Spanish people have told me that it is now much faster than before but they still seem to be talking about three months minimum from start to finish. In fact the World Bank says that it takes 133 days on average to start a business in Spain (It's 1 day in New Zealand and 19 in the UK) Anyway, paperwork done, you open your doors. Right from the start you have to pay the minimum rate, flat rate social security payment of approximately 260€. That can be a fair chunk of the profit of a small business at start up. What a surprise then that people set up "illegal" businesses. If they succeed a lot of them finally get around to going legal once the turnover is sufficient to bear the costs. Actually the high social security costs also affect people who are employed. I haven't checked this figure for a while but employers were stumping up another 42% of a workers wage to pay into the social security system. That's a high percentage and, surprise surprise, to avoid it cash in hand jobs and dodgy contracts abound.

There's another much less tangible thing about starting a business. Everybody knows that lots of businesses fail. If your business fails in the US you shrug it off and try again. It's not like that here. If your business fails then the legal fallout will haunt you for years as will the social stigma of a failed business.

You might think with 5 million on the dole and the economy teetering on the brink of collapse that the politicians might come up with something a bit more radical than cutting spending on health, education and the like whilst jacking up both direct and indirect taxes. But you need to know that there is often a way to do things in Spain. I can list tens of things that strike me as odd about the way things are done, here are a few very banal examples. I'm taking it as read that we live in some version of a capitalist society.

To get into lots of shops you have to ring a bell to get past the front door - great idea a physical barrier to stop any customers getting near. Basic selling techniques are completely ignored - simple things like dispalying your opening hours or displaying menus and prices outside your premises. In lots of eateries you have to ask what food is available as it isn't made obvious. In a café bar for instance it's not unusual to have to ask to see the snack list. This obviously limits impulse buying and adds uncertainty about prices both of which are good ways to limit a customer's spending. There is a fixed idea about what people will and won't buy too. For instance there is hardly any wine available in Spain that isn't from Spain - the thought that a nice Chilean merlot may sell well doesn't enter into it. Spicy food is basically unavailable in Spain. Spaniards tell me that nobody would eat it so I'm not sure how it caught on with all those Chinese, Indians, Thais, Mexicans, Brits etc. Spaniards must have different taste buds. How can a book shop or a record shop be so disorganised that stock listed on their computers is unfindable by the staff who work there? Lots of petrol stations have attended service presumably because they want to double their staffing costs. Official letters are written in archaic language which is incomprehensible to ordinary people. Administration is parcelled up into geographical areas and lots of tasks can only be completed face to face so that you have to travel to this or that office. A lot of Spaniards work split days - that is they have a morning session and an afternoon/evening session at work doubling up on travel. It is a contributory factor to the longer working hours and lower productivity of the Spanish workforce. 48% of Spaniards have never left Spain, 15% have never left their own region, 20% of the population makes 80% of all overseas journeys. Spanish horizons are limited. The majority of people we know in Cartagena spend their summer holidays in one of the local resorts.

In the UK there was an attitude of looking for new opportunities, of searching out a new solution to both the old and new problems but here that isn't anything like as obvious. It's as though it hasn't occurred to anyone that there are any fundamental problems because their grandparents found the perfect solution years ago. It's as though innovation, looking for new markets, selling more to regular or repeat clients were all bad things.

Spanish children often have to learn the names of the major bones in the body. Although this vital information was missing from my own early early education I have somehow managed to get by. I wonder, if I ever needed to know the name of a bone might it be possible to find it on the Internet? No, probably better to learn it - just in case.

Teaching, so far as I can tell, is still very much based on the idea of teachers imparting total information rather than on passing information to students about how to get to learn about whatever they need whenever they want. It reminds me of that old charity poster which read something like "Give a man a fish and he's got supper. Give him a rod and he'll eat for life." Fish abound in the schools.

A student came to me for help with preparation on a topic that she was going to present as part of an oral English exam. She was very anxious for me to correct the phrasing of her two page essay on the Modern Olympics. I suggested that it would be better if we talked about the Olympics so she was better prepared for the oral on the day. I was wrong. Her technique, approved of by the examining board and endorsed by her teachers was to learn the text word for word and then repeat it back parrot fashion. Excellent plan, future verbal dexterity in English assured!

The politicians and the bankers and the power brokers are a product of this thinking. The way that politicians are elected is based on a list of candidates which limits the voting choice to one party and maintains the power elite. You are basicallly unable to vote for people so, if you approve of a party's policies but know that several of their candidates are crooks you are in a bit of a bind. If you're uncle gave you your first job and now you can help him along with a political favour that's only reasonable isn't it? As a politician you look after your family and chums. If, when you started out in business you had to do a bit of creative accounting to maintain a fair balance in an unfair world then it is obviously perfectly reasonable to use the same methods in your political dealings. You do things as you've always done them and you try hard to keep information to yourself because if you don't some jumped up little so and so is likely to cause you grief. That's why the Spanish Freedom of Information Act still isn't on the statute books and why one of the Gorvernment's first actions on coming to power was to effectively gag the state broadcaster. If learning the names of the provinces and rivers stood you and your forebears in good stead why isn't it good enough for today’s 16 year olds who just spend all their time fiddling with their mobile phones anyway?

No worry. It's a pity that the rest of the world is in so much turmoil that it's causing us problems but things will sort themselves out if we pour out a nice Rioja, eat some tasty  ham and wait for everything to settle back into its proper orbit.


  1. Despite reiterated pledges by the government to cut down on red tape, Spain remains one of the most difficult countries in the world in which to set up a business, according to the World Bank’s Doing Business 2013 report, which was released late Monday.

    Spain is ranked 136th out of the 185 countries included in the World Bank’s survey on the ease of doing business, three places lower than last year. On average it takes 10 separate administrative procedures and 28 days to establish a company in Spain, at a cost equivalent to 4.7 percent of the average annual per capita income.

    The easiest places in the world to set up a company are New Zealand, Australia and Canada, while the most difficult are Ivory Coast, Iraq and Surinam. In this component of the World Bank’s report, Spain ranks, among others, behind Afghanistan, Albania, Burundi, Iran, Kosovo, Kenya, Morocco, Nepal, Nicaragua, Ruanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Yemen and Zambia.

    A Seville businessman recently spoke of the odyssey he had to go through to set up a business in Vejer in Andalusia, one of the regions in Europe with the highest jobless rates. It took him three years after having to go through four different administrations, at a cost of 10,000 euros.

    Setting up a company remains the most arduous aspect in terms of ease of doing business in general in Spain, which ranks 44th in this component of the survey.

  2. Great article shining some light on the goings on in Spain. Look forward to reading more. Think a little perspective is needed though as Spain in so many ways is 20-25 years behind in so many ways where the UK is. Not all being in bad ways either. Otherwise what are we all doing here?

  3. Thanks for the comment Colin: Nice to know that somebody sometimes reads the blog! I don't quite understand what you mean about the perspective of Spain being behind (the UK?) though.


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