Labour reform creates uncertainty for 25,000 Spanish researchers

Job insecurity has been exacerbated by legislation intended to end it, with universities facing spiralling recontracting costs and no extra funding

February 22, 2022
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Spanish lawmakers meant well when they ended temporary contracts for public employees, but their reforms ignored a research system running from project to project and have had damaging results. 

On 14 February, Julián Garde, the Spanish rectors’ conference lead on research and innovation, told a parliamentary committee that the labour law, passed on 28 December 2021, could have a “very negative impact” on universities’ ability to contract staff for project work. 

The warning should not have come as a surprise. The Conference of Rectors of Spanish Universities (CRUE), trade unions and academic societies had long warned that an exception would be needed to avoid major disruption to an already struggling research system. 

Without an alternative type of temporary public contract, CRUE estimates that up to 25,000 researchers would be “paralysed” in contract limbo. 

José Torralba, vice-president of the Confederation of Scientific Societies of Spain, and director of the IMDEA Materials Institute, said that the labour law included exceptions for seasonal workers in other sectors but ignored the reality of research, where about 60 per cent of contracts are temporary. 

“Our politicians always regulate against science, not in favour of science. They are thinking of tourist businesses, countryside businesses, but not science,” he said. 

The law grants temporary staff the right to request a permanent position at the end of their contract, but Professor Torralba said this labour transformation was unfunded. 

“This is not sustainable for the system, because you have a budget for a specific number of permanent people, but [now] you can grow infinitely – as much as you are contracting people for projects.”

Rather than reduce career precarity, he said that some institutions had switched to employing staff on six-month contracts, which do not grant the right to request a permanent position. “This is a very negative situation for the researchers,” he said.

The CSIF trade union, which represents civil servants, said that the law had thrown researchers into “labour limbo land” and some risked not having their contracts renewed. 

“Our organisation calls for an immediate solution for these researchers, which is the offer of indefinite contracts for them,” the union said. 

One institution picking through the fallout of the clumsy legislation is Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) in Barcelona. “We are now looking case by case to see what the best solution is,” said Pablo Pareja, vice-rector for teaching staff and community relations. 

He said that between 250 and 300 staff at the research-intensive university were affected by the reform, which forbids the signing of a certain type of temporary contract after 1 March. 

Professor Pareja said there were three other types of contract that staff could be switched to once their temporary contracts expire, one of which covers those paid with European Union pandemic recovery funds, which includes about 150 staff.  

“Luckily for us, our researchers are very competitive and they secured European funding. So this gives us an air balloon that helps navigate this transition period,” he said. 

In the spirit of the reforms, some staff at UPF will be switched on to longer-term contracts, with the hope that they will be able to win additional project funding in the future, while the remaining staff will take on other tasks, allowing them to sign contracts permitted by Spain’s 2011 science law. 

Professor Pareja said that the re-contracting would raise staffing costs. Although he was still working these out, he estimated they could be up to 50-60 per cent higher. Luckily, UPF’s reserves mean that will not bring cuts elsewhere for the time being. 

“We want to make sure the research system at the university is not damaged in any way. So, if anything, we will delay other plans that we may have,” he said, giving building construction as an example. “We will definitely make sure we protect the gem of the university, which is the research.” 

CRUE and CSIF have said that the best way to free researchers from limbo is by creating a new type of temporary contract in Spain’s recast science law, which was due to be agreed by ministers on 18 February. 

Drafts of the law suggest this new contract will be “permanent” but tied to a specific project and therefore time-limited. 

“It’s complete nonsense, because in fact it’s the same situation that we had before the law,” said Professor Torralba, who gave evidence to a parliamentary committee on the law.  

“We had such contracts before, but now they want to [broadcast] to Europe that in Spain everybody will be on permanent contacts,” he said, adding that future regulation should be screened for its impact on the research system. “They are producing regulations and laws without taking into account the specific situation of the science.”


Print headline: Labour reform throws 25,000 Spanish scholars into ‘limbo land’

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