The 97 non-agreement workers who cover the administrative, stewardship and citizen service needs of the Spanish embassy in the United Kingdom and the consulates of London, Manchester and Edinburgh, have been summoned as of this Monday, March 14 to an indefinite strike. What, at first glance, appears to be a labor dispute stemming from low wages and remarkably improvable working conditions actually has a much greater symbolism, because it exposes the lack of foresight that the Spanish governments had in the face of the cataclysm stemming from Brexit. When the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU, voted in a referendum in 2016, became an irreversible reality, the British authorities offered EU citizens residing in the country the possibility of availing themselves of the so-called EU Settlement Scheme (EU Settlement Program), to preserve all the rights acquired until then (residence, access to the labor market, social services…). Overnight, it turned out that the ninth most populous Spanish city was in the United Kingdom: 308,000 Spaniards applied for post-Brexit regularization, which led to the intuition that the figure could even approach 400,000. Faced with an increasingly complicated situation, many of them chose to do what they had not done until then: register at the consulate, to record their presence in the country, in the face of possible unforeseen events. 170,000 Spaniards registered, and growing. Those who must attend, in a post-Brexit and pandemic period, a group of workers in such disadvantageous working conditions that around 20% of them leave their jobs every year. “People leave work only when we have managed to train them. And this translates into the fact that we end up giving people a bad service, due to excessive turnover or because we are forced to reinforce the teams with technical assistance (personnel hired for a few months)”, explains one of the workers who has promoted the most the call for an indefinite strike.
The continuous calls to cover the vacancies that open offer salaries that range between 20,000 and 26,000 euros per year. Amounts that, from Spain, can be considered low but respectable. In a city like London, but also in Manchester or Edinburgh, with prohibitive housing rents and a very high standard of living, it is difficult to consider a minimum vital project with those salaries. To make matters worse, since 2008, when the last update took place, the salaries of all these personnel remain frozen. From then until 2021, the accumulated inflation is 27.5%. The United Kingdom has decided to increase Social Security contributions by 1.25%, and the estimated inflation for 2022 will be around 7%, the highest in the last three decades. As a consequence of this whole situation, the new workers end up earning more than those who have been there for more years and who are going to train them in their new positions. The organizers of the strike demand “a salary increase that compensates for the loss of purchasing power” and “the immediate equalization of the remuneration of all workers with the same administrative category.”
It is not a problem unique to the UK. In fact, it is possible that the next strike call will be that of the Berlin workers. The personnel hired in Spanish consulates and embassies around the world are subject to the labor legislation of each country, with a series of improvements stipulated according to the circumstances of each case that contemplates the resolution of January 31, 2008 of the General Secretariat for the Public Administration. Above all, it is the extremely expensive standard of living in the country, especially in London, and a minimum Social Security protection system that causes an enormous wear and tear on the staff, who are also subjected to strong stress because of attending to one of the highest expatriate communities in Europe. In the UK, it is common for employers to supplement basic social coverage with an additional benefit such as insurance or private pension plans. Only in this way can a worker get ahead during a sick leave, because the British aid is around 115 euros per week. “There have been colleagues who have come to work two weeks after having suffered a heart attack, and some plan the operations they must undergo during vacation time,” explains the worker cited above. To which we must add that, according to the conveners, the Spanish Government has not paid attention to what was agreed after the United Kingdom Withdrawal Agreement. “After the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union (…) Royal Decree Law 28/2020 states that ‘Public employees will be subject to the legislation of the State, United Kingdom or Spain, on which the Administration that occupies them depends ‘, warns the statement calling for the strike. “Our Administration has chosen to ignore these criteria and has unfairly left its staff at the mercy of the British social security system,” they denounce.
In the embassy and in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs they are aware of a reality that remains in the hands, above all, of the Ministry of Finance. Minister José Manuel Albares and the Director General of the Foreign Service, María Hilda Jiménez, have seen first-hand a reality to which they have not yet been able to respond. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation (MAEC) has undertaken numerous actions to improve the situation of the staff. The update of the plugin named London Inner Allowance [para compensar el coste de la vida de Londres, un 20% superior al resto del país: poco más de 500 euros al mes], to improve salary conditions; Numerous meetings have been held with union representatives and visits by the management team to the representations in the United Kingdom”, assure Foreign sources.
Requests for passports, visas and other procedures at the consulates of the United Kingdom -especially the one in London- have overwhelmed the response capacity of the Spanish foreign administration. Tens of thousands of pending procedures accumulate. The capital’s consulate, two adjoining housing buildings in the Chelsea neighborhood, have neither the infrastructure nor the capacity to accommodate more staff. It is normal to see a huge queue of citizens on the street every day. The episodes in which the police have ended up intervening, due to people’s desperation and lack of nerves, are very common. “But few are aware of the enormous work that many of the staff took on, especially due to Brexit. They added unpaid overtime after hours, to speed up procedures and get the job done. Although many do not believe it, we have our hearts, and we do not like to leave citizens in the lurch, “says one of the workers. Foreign Affairs has already begun the search for a more functional building suited to the needs, but the slowness of the administration is exasperating. To which must be added a very poor computer system that generates frustration and anger among the Spanish community that tries to use the consular services. And in spite of everything, the situation of the personnel without agreement has generated the solidarity of the foreign institutions. “From the CRE [Consejo de Residentes Españoles] of the North and Central United Kingdom, we can only sympathize with their decision to go on strike, with what it entails, and regret the situation they have been pushed into by the lack of empathy and justice on the part of the Foreign Office with whom they have months trying to negotiate a fair salary increase,” says David Casarejos, president of the Manchester Residents Council.
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