Only a couple of years ago, the only time Spain appeared on UK National News was in relation to air traffic strikes, soaring holiday temperatures or when an expat found themselves in a compromising situation. Spain was confined to " you can have your dream property TV" or "your dream holiday programmes," and the thought of daily Spanish government business making UK headlines was inconceivable.
But the crisis has changed all that and images showing the plight of expats on dubious ghost urbanisations and angrily waving papers following court battles with absentee constructors have become commonplace, as have the stories covering the woes of the Spanish banking system, the economic meltdown, the construction industry in crisis and the ever present question of whether Spain requires financial aid from Europe.
Increasing coverage has been given to the social issues economic crisis in Spain is starting to provoke, including the miners strike, protests in the streets and the anger of the Spanish people as the economic cuts bite deeper and cause social problems for those who have the least power to fight what's happening around them. Miners fighting with police and thousands of people protesting have become commonplace images on UK TV, but are they an exaggeration of the feelings of the man on the street?
This week, protests took place in 57 cities around Spain, and here in the region of Murcia, there were protest marches on Thursday in both Cartagena and Murcia.
Although these events were orchestrated by the unions, the CCOO and the UGT, they were supported by other groups which have been formed in protest about local issues, and dozens of independent protests have been taking place throughout the region about issues close to local communities.
The union protests began as a response to legislation passed by the new government in relation to the labour reform laws, laws demanded by the business community to make Spanish labour law more flexible and enable businesses to compete and function more efficiently in a competitive marketplace. The unions felt that the laws favoured the better off businesses and did little to protect the rights of the worker, although the laws were passed with the intention of protecting the rights of both employer and employee and make it easier for employers to create employment and create jobs without being burdened by legislation which made them uncompetitive and which in fact, stopped them from investing in staff. Although the legislation did also make it easier for businesses to shed staff if they were finding it difficult to remain solvent with too many personnel to pay.
But these protests on Thursday weren´t just about labour reform, they have become a magnet for all those dissatisfied and disenchanted with the cuts and reforms their local governments have been forced to make due to the massive economic problems facing Spain. Municipal and regional debt has risen to unprecedented levels, and the administrations have no choice other than to make substantial cuts in public services, which is leading to the loss of jobs, and lack of spending, which in turn feeds down into the businesses who survive due to the administrations.
In hospitals, local government and schools throughout the region, temporary workers and those without permanent contracts are finding that their contracts are not being renewed, a situation affecting thousands of people. When schools break up for the summer, thousands of supply teachers will find themselves without a job to go back to in the autumn, a situation which parents say will lead to a lower standard of education for their children, class sizes increasing, exacerbated by lack of textbooks and lack of funding. Pupils in one local Cartagena school have been protesting recently because the school can´t even afford to provide toilet paper for the pupils, and exam questions had to be read out as the school had no money to photocopy exam papers.
The same situation applies in hospitals, local health centres, and within the town halls themselves, as the administrations are forced to make cutbacks where they can. Hundreds of local health service workers are in the same boat as the supply teachers: as contracts come to an end they are not being renewed, and hundreds of jobs are being destroyed.
Even the media has not escaped the cutbacks. Journalists have been protesting in both Murcia in Cartagena, an estimated 600 jobs lost since the crisis began, as withdrawal of financing for television and radio results in job losses, and the printed media suffer from lack of advertising revenue as town halls and businesses spend less promoting their projects. Whilst television has taken the biggest knocks, the printed press nationwide are also shedding journalists: even the major national El Mundo announced just two weeks ago that it was disposing of 200 workers.
Although the protests were peaceful, the feelings of discontent and anger were both vocally and visually made, with all ages participating.
What did the protestors hope to achieve we wanted to know?
Dialogue, the Unions said. We need to talk about these issues, and be part of the decision making process to resolve the problems.
Make our feelings heard and air the problems we have. The banners said it all, "Cartagena no se calle, " - Cartagena won´t be quiet, stand up for your rights. Urging fellow members of the community to support protests and not allow the administrations to pass measures which were unpopular and causing hardship for many within their community. Using peaceful protest to send a message to local, regional and national governments that they are unhappy with what is going on.
The banners semt out the message - No to the closure of the Rosell Hospital, No to cuts in education and health, No to high unemployment, No to the abusive increases in municipal taxes, No to the bank bailouts.
And all ages supported the protests.
Why have you brought your grandchildren on this protest we asked a grandfather with his young grandson on his shoulders : "It's his future I´m fighting for, " he said, "his education, his health, his safety, if we don´t make a noise they´ll walk all over us...."
Teachers, health workers, ecologists, journalists, students, even workers from the local businesses associated with the shipbuilding industry, their concerns being that cuts in military spending puts their own jobs at risk, as orders in the pipeline for the coming months were insufficient to provide work for associated contractors.
At the end of the march, the protestors congregated in front of the Town hall, reading a manifesto which reminded all present that Cartagena has one of the highest levels of unemployment in the region, and accusing the Mayoress of "looking the other way" as the crisis unravells.
Although the summer months see an increase in temporary job contracts during the busy summer tourism season, the true scale of Spain´s economic issues will only be revealed when the October unemployment figures come out, and the decline in temporary contracts becomes brutally apparent.
The unions and the groups of protestors we spoke to were determined to keep making noise, "we will continue to come out into the streets as long as the cutbacks continue, " they said.
Is there a short term solution to these social issues? No.
Is this crisis going to abate any time in the near future? No.
Is it worth protesting when the authorities are doing everything they can to resolve their financial issues? Absolutely, they said. We´re the ones suffering, we have many solutions amongst us, if only there could be more dialogue between those making the decisions and those on the ground. We have to make noise and we have to achieve dialogue.
Those who print protest banners and T-shirts may be the only businesses looking forward to a busy autumn.
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