Sunday, 11 November 2012

Tired of waiting

Don't worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday.
Before I emigrated in 2006, my last job in the UK was four years working at Imperial College Library Service. A lousy job, working for lousy people in what was more a cheating service than a library service. It went badly, it ended badly and it started badly when they neither paid me my first month's salary nor told me that it wouldn't be paid on time.

I had a row with the manager, who offended me further by telling me that it was up to me to expect this and the university was under no obligation of any kind. I replied that if this was so, I was no obligation to do any work, or indeed remain at work - and I went home, returning only when I had a guarantee of an advance against unpaid wages. Which guarantee, and advance, I received the very next day.

That was on the north side of the Bay of Biscay. When R first came to Spain, she wasn't paid for four months until after she started work. Nobody kept her informed. Nobody paid her any advances (save the friends and work colleagues who offered to lend her money) and nobody thought anything unusual or untoward was happening. Had she done what I had done, it would have made no difference whatsoever. Except that people would almost certainly have told her she was complaining too much.

Where experiences are different, expectations are different too. In Spain people are more used to bureaucracy, and more used to bureaucracy that moves at its own pace, taking months to carry out a task, giving you no opportunity to talk directly to the people involved, and then insisting that you travel somewhere at a moment's notice to collect a permit or fill in a form. This isn't a particular feature of the public sector: banks and insurance companies work the same way. All sorts of companies work the same way. You would expect them to: they operate to the level of the public's expectations.

It doesn't mean people think it is right not to pay you on time, or to suddenly withdraw your banking services without notice, or whatever it may be. But they just know that this will often happen, and to some extent, having learned to live with it themselves, they expect you to live with it too. But because people are prepared to live with it, it keeps on happening.

If you're looking for abuses by the business class, there is rarely a better place to look for them than football. If they can get away with it, then football is where they will get away with it. Naturally, in the UK, football clubs run up as much unpaid tax as they can, whenever they can, but football club staff, backroom and players alike, are normally paid, properly and on time - at least, until their unpaid tax brings on bankruptcy proceedings, at which point the office staff can find themselves relying on promises in place on payslips.

In Spain, by contrast, non-payment of players is common, even rife. I was having coffee just outside Cuenca a few weeks ago and reading the sports pages, in which the chairman of Conquense was claiming that his players had thrown a play-off game against Zaragoza B at the end of the previous season. At the point where the chairman claimed that though they hadn't been paid, they would have been very shortly, I started to believe him. Not, though, about how they would have been paid shortly. Only about how they might have thrown the game.

Conquense are in La Tercera, though they might not be if they'd paid their players. Málaga are in La Primera and the Champions' League. They have several times failed to pay their players. A couple of years ago Levante went through most of a season without paying their players: Rayo Vallecano did the same last term. (Rayo were nevertheless promoted. Levante, in the season I refer to, went the other way.) The owners of all these clubs are rich. They do it not because they need to, but because they can get away with it. And in part, they get away it because people expect no better- as Royston Drenthe found out when he went on strike when Hércules failed to pay him. Far from receving support and sympathy, he was crucified. Which is among the reasons why, had I been paid late in Spain, I probably wouldn't have walked out.

You are expected to take it. Which means that you can be taken advantage of. And this is an age of being taken advantage of. That is what Shock Doctrine is all about. If you are afraid, they take advantage of it. If you are without power, they take advantage of it. And if you already have low expectations, they take advantage of these too.

And this is what is beginning to occur in Spain, as it has been happening in Greece. The delays and lies that have occasionally occurred - and been grudgingly accepted - are occurring more and more frequently. All the time, you hear of people not being paid for months. Private and public sector both. And once you can go unpaid one month, why not four? Why not ten? Why not forever?

I was working in Cáceres last week, and two of the teachers - not new teachers, just ones whose contracts had changed - had not been paid for four months. But what is four months? I went back to our hotel room and on the news - on La Sexta news, which seems to be more protest-friendly than TVE - they had a story about employees in Novelda, in Alicante province. People who were on strike after not being paid for ten months.

Ten months! At what point do you start to believe you won't be paid at all? This is what I remember most vividly, from the Russian crisis of the Nineties. The collapse of life expectancy, the flight of people back to their home villages, professors moonlighting as taxi drivers, people relying on their vegetable gardens. I remember all of these. But I remember most the crisis of non-payment, the millions of people who failed to receive their pay, many of whom never received it, many of whom were paid in kind, in goods. If they were ever paid at all.

Nor is it only employees. In Valencia, chemists are on strike, not having been paid for nearly six months by the regional government. It wouldn't surprise me if Castilla-La Mancha followed their example - as long last February I passed a chemist in Valdepeñas which had a notice in the window saying that they hadn't been paid for several months. The cuts in CLM have been deeper than anywhere else. I wonder if they will have been paid when I am back there next February. Or whether they too, will be on strike.

Why are chemists and employees not being paid? To cut the deficit. Why is there a deficit? Well, if you believe mainstream commentary, it's because of bad financial practices by state and financial institutions. So how is this to be reversed? By not paying people what you owe, as bad a practice as one can imagine. In the name of fiscal rectitude, of "credibility", of restoring the markets' faith in the public accounts. And when that leads to people going without pay for months, those people can be lectured on the virtues and necessity of patience. Lectured by people who are accustomed to have their material needs instantly met.

Perhaps there should have been less patience, less shrugging of the shoulders. Perhaps, now there are strikes, there will be less patience. One hopes so. Had Spaniards been less willing to accept abuses, there would be fewer abuses now.

Maybe it is changing. Patience is even running out for football clubs (as Deportivo have just found out, to their cost). People are marching against evictions, now. People are occupying hospitals, now. Maybe people will decide that if they do not pay you, the best response is not to work. Or if they come for your wages and your pensions and your employment rights and your children's schools, then the best response is not to work.

There is a general strike on Wednesday. I hope it is successful. What does that mean? Nobody precisely knows. In itself, it can and will change nothing. But if it is followed by another and a bigger one? What if this process, like the process of austerity, gets completely out of hand?

Then they can sit and wait. And worry. And not know what will happen next.

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