When the movie reviews recently surfaced in Madrid for Spider-Man 2, the young superhero’s mundane day job in a pizza joint was dismissively defined with Spain’s harsh local slang for temporary work, “contrato basura”.
That means literally a “garbage contract”, the term for the temporary contracts that more than a third of Spain’s workforce now hold, second only to South Korea among the 30 industrialised countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
But it’s not just the workers twirling pizza dough who end up with temporary contracts. They include those who hold high-end jobs, like doctors, nurses and journalists.
The impact is profound. According to experts, the instability of short-term jobs can affect everything from workplace injuries to national fertility rates.
The issue is drawing more scrutiny in Spain, where health workers have been pressing for change. Unions, employer associations and government officials have been meeting to discuss reforms to reduce temporary contracts, which typically are concentrated among young workers and among women employees.
These types of contracts are particularly popular among employers in Italy, the Netherlands, France and Germany because they offer hiring and firing flexibility to cope with fluctuating business conditions.
Italy’s employment growth over the past decade has flowed largely from a rising number of temporary contract jobs, making up for a decline in the number of permanent workers, according to the OECD.
In the United States, fixed contracts are not as popular because it is simply easier to lay off employees.
When Maria Guadalupe graduated from the University of Barcelona in 1998, most of her friends had little choice but to accept posts with temporary contracts that could be renewed.
Many of them are still labouring under the short-term agreements which, she said, have created a divide in the nature of jobs in Spain.
Now an economist and an assistant business professor at Columbia University in New York, Guadalupe studied links between contracts and Spain’s job injury rate, which ranks among the highest in Europe.
“A lot of the accidents happen around fixed-contract workers,” she said, but she added that they could happen for a variety of reasons, particularly in temporary industrial jobs.
A boss may hire contract employees with lower skills, or “maybe the workplace investment in safety is lower for people on contracts because employers have a lower incentive to pay for training”, she said.
Economists at the University of Basel argue that short-term jobs increase motivation because employees are eager to please, offering to work unpaid overtime to gain permanent jobs.
But Guadalupe said that efforts to work harder also increased the risks. Her study of industrial employees found that a fixed-contract job raised the probability of a work injury by four to seven percentage points.
“Contracts are not bad per se,” she said, “but when it creates a system where one level is more protected than the other, it can certainly have consequences.”
The result can be a form of daily desperation.
“All the time you’re thinking about the future and how do I go on,” said Christian Seidenabel, who rejected a one-month contract with a German company and then settled for a three-month agreement that lingered.
“Nobody can tell you how long your job is going to last.
“How do you try and finish your work at the same time that you’re looking for a new job with a new employer who offers better conditions?”
The instability of temporary work can also have a deep impact on lifestyle, according to economists who note that in Southern Europe, unemployment and fixed contracts have combined to depress fertility rates among women between 20 and 29.
Since the mid-1980s, when the contracts started emerging, Spain’s fertility rate has plunged, with the mean age of new motherhood starting at 30.
Instability influences life choices. Marriage is postponed. Real estate purchases are avoided.
“You don’t renovate your apartment,” Seidenabel joked.
Ultimately, he found a permanent solution to the perils of temporary work: He started his own consulting company, Communication Lab, and considers himself happily self-employed. – IHT