Spanish employers are laying off 40'000 workers a week.

Business lobbies campaign to simplify hiring and firing.

Government is wary of confronting unions on job protection.

Axe falls mainly on workers on temporary contracts.
By Andrew Hay

UNEMPLOYMENT is rising faster in Spain than in any other developed country, stoking calls for labour reform, but an overhaul is unlikely before 2010 when joblessness may top 20 percent and force the government to act.

In just 18 months, Spain has gone from creating over a third of new jobs in the European Union to laying off 40'000 workers a week as the global crisis tears apart an outdated economy built on disposable jobs in construction and services.

Fearful unemployment problems could lead to a banking crisis, the Bank of Spain and business lobbies want to cut hiring and firing costs and shake up a collective bargaining system dating back to the days of dictator Francisco Franco.

Employees on long-term contracts are shielded by the world's highest redundancy payments, according to the OECD, with compensation of 45 days pay per year worked leading to firing costs around triple those in France and Britain.

To get around this, Spanish firms engage a third of workers on temporary contracts, the highest rate in the EU.
Companies are axing these short-term staff to survive what could be Spain's worst recession since its 1936-1939 Civil War, before moving onto expensive, long-term colleagues.

Unions have threatened a general strike if Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero tries to cut worker protection after unemployment swelled to around 15 percent in February, the highest rate of any country in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development).

Zapatero, whose Socialist Party was punished for the economic crisis with defeat in March 1 regional elections in Galicia, is trying to avoid confrontation with the unions. He already faces an economic leadership crisis, with veteran finance minister Pedro Solbes expected to step down as early as April after repeatedly saying he is tired of the job.

To keep unions happy, the prime minister has promised hundreds of thousands of jobs from a 70 billion euro stimulus package and refused to cut firing costs.

That is one way of keeping the lid on social pressure, but rocketing unemployment might threaten to blow it off anyway. “This reform is going to happen, but not soon enough, it's only going to happen once we get to 4, 5 million unemployed,” said economist Rafael Pampillon at Madrid's IE business school.