Spain through the looking glass

Archive for October 2012


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The joys of country living. This sign outside a farm near Gaucin, Andalusia reads: House doesn’t contain anything of value but is protected by an alarm. There are no tools in the shed: local thieves have already cleaned them out. If you really want to come in, call and ask for the keys.


Written by georgemills25

October 31, 2012 at 09:11

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Language matters

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Spain has come in at 18th place in a new global study looking at English skills.

The study run by the English teaching conglomerate EF places Spain squarely in the medium proficiency bracket with an English proficiency index score of 55.89. That’s just above Portugal and Argentina but below many other European countries.

Digging deeper, a regional breakdown shows people in the Basque Country were the only group to be rated ‘high proficiency’ while test takers from Extremadura were at the foot of the table with very low proficiency. Spanish men, meanwhile, bucked the global trend by outscoring women: scores for males were 56.16 against 55.59 for females.

These figures are based on the results of three different tests taken by 1.7 million adults in 52 countries from 2009 to 2011. The first two tests are open to internet users worldwide for free and the third is the online test EF uses to place its students in English classes. All three tests have grammar, vocabulary, reading and listening sections.

EF readily owns up to the study’s various methodological issues. They note the sample group is self-selecting and only people who are actually interested in learning English will take the online tests. Then there is the issue of lack of access to the internet in some countries and among underprivileged groups. As The Economist explains it:  “If a country has an urban elite who are good with English, and a lot of rural poor people who cannot take the test, its score might be relatively inflated. In another country where nearly everyone is online but English skills are mediocre, the scores might be relatively depressed.”

But The Economist also recognises the value of the EF study and its regional, age, sex and industry breakdowns of English proficiency. The study shows, for example, that the best speaker of English are aged 30–35, and that women score higher than men – an average of 53.90 compared with 52.14.

Industry-wise, the best performing students are in travel and tourism and consulting, while people in high-tech industries like telecommunications and aviation also score well. People in retail and public service are at the other end of the scale with very low proficiency.

Europeans are still the best speakers of English worldwide, with the top 11 places owned by the continent. But EF warns that “moderate proficiency countries must continue with proposed education reforms in English instruction in order to raise their proficiency levels to those of their neighbours”.

The teaching giant also says education spending across Europe does not correlate well with English proficiency. They suggest that “current funding levels, if spent effectively, should be sufficient for all countries to attain high or very high proficiency.”

France and Italy come under particular fire for their low scores in the EF report.

Written by georgemills25

October 31, 2012 at 09:04

Missing millions

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It’s time to tackle the issue of Spain’s missing millions, and before you jump to conclusions, I’m not talking here about the huge pile of cash that the Spanish government owes to its creditors in Germany and France, nor even about the fortune in unpaid taxes owed by Spain’s individuals and businesses.

The missing millions I want to deal with here are the countless small denomination notes that appear to have simply vanished. Every day it seems that there are fewer and fewer of these elegant little bills to be had; no longer do we have wallets bulging with grey 5-euro notes. Tills nationwide are emptying of those very pretty red 10-euro bills, and the receipt of a 20-euro note has – speaking personally, at least – become something of a cause for wonder.

The evidence I have for this is of the best possible sort: purely anecdotal and without the slightest scientific basis. I have conducted no polls and have spoken to no experts. There is a lack of supporting data. The simple fact, however, is that nobody in Spain seems to have any bills of a useful denomination. Several times now I’ve tried to pay for something with a 50-euro note or even a 20 only to have people look me the way you might stare at a man who has only shaved half of his face.

“You don’t,” they always say, “perhaps have anything smaller?”

When I reply in the negative, one of two things happens. Either the sales assistant/bartender in question gets slightly huffy and sends  an underling off to fetch change from one of the Chinese-run stores nearby or I am handed a huge pocket-fraying pile of metal. Neither of these options is disastrous – as my friend Lawrie always says “money is money” – but I can’t help wondering what has happened to all these notes.

The answer could lie with Gao Ping. This Chinese entrepreneur cum art aficionado cum public enemy number 100 (I’m assuming every politician and financier in Europe comes higher up the list than him) was recently revealed as the head of a multi-million dollar money-laundering operation which involved thousands of tiny payments being wired back to China. He, surely, is partly responsible for the missing millions. But I am beginning to suspect other forces must be at work.

It could be, for instance, that the nation’s pensioners have – after a half decade of crisis – lost all faith in the banks and are reverting to that time-honoured practice of squirreling their money away under the bathroom tiles.

Or perhaps there is actually a hidden revolution happening in this country. Maybe Spain’s charcoal-suited banking overlords are secretly withdrawing Euros from the vaults in preparation for an imminent rollout of inky New Pesetas. And perhaps members of the ruling Popular Party are at this very moment engaged in a major sell-off of the country’s currency reserves. They might already be swapping truck loads of Euros for van loads of US dollars or Swiss Francs in expectation of a not-so-distant day when the whole system crashes down around our ears.

Then again, it could be that I’m just not having much luck with change.

Written by georgemills25

October 30, 2012 at 10:20

Posted in Uncategorized

Twenty-five per cent and counting

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This weekend the clocks went back an hour in Spain but with the country’s latest jobless figures showing official unemployment is now at 25.02% per cent, many people must be wishing they could turn back time a lot further.

On Friday, Spain’s national statistics institute revealed that 85,000 people aged 16 and over had joined the ranks of the jobless in the third quarter of this year. That means that 5.778.100 people will be on benefits as winter rolls in.

Meanwhile, the total figure for people in some form of active employment fell by 96,000 from July to September to stand at 17,320,000; This is the lowest level since 2003 and also means that 3.2 million Spanish people have lost their jobs since this country’s figures for active employment hit an all-time high back of 20.5 million back in 2007.

One of the most striking features of Spain’s July–September figures jobless is that the public sector is now shedding jobs as quickly as its private counterpart. By the end of the Q3, there were 47,600 fewer private sector jobs against a figure of 49,400 for the public sector.

The other key news is that Spain’s economy lost 179,400 permanent jobs, or empleo fijo, in the period covered by the latest national survey. And while the number of people in full-time work edged upwards to the tune of 14,800, this was offset by a drop of 111.800 in people working part time.

On a sector-by-sector basis, the construction industry continues to suffer heavily with the sector losing 56,100 jobs in Q3. There are now 32,700 fewer posts in the service industries and 11,900 fewer jobs in agriculture. Only the industrial sector saw marginal gains with 11,900 new positions being created.

In the last 12 months, the job situation has hit men harder than woman (565.500 fewer jobs for men against 270.400 for women). However, the last three months have seen 75,000 women lose their jobs against only 75,000. The unemployment rate for women is now 25.41 per cent while for the male counterparts it stands at 24.68 per cent.

In Q3 2012, the unemployment rate among foreigners reached 34.84% while the rate for Spaniards was 23.32%. The youth jobless rate, while ever so slightly down on Q2 figures, is still a staggeringly high 52.34%.

Written by georgemills25

October 29, 2012 at 09:03

Posted in business, crisis, News, society, Spain

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Birth pains

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Opening a business in Spain continues to be a real headache.

The new IFC/World Bank Doing Business 2013 report has Spain in 136th place among 185 countries surveyed in terms of how easy it is to get an enterprise up and running. That’s a drop of 2 places since last year and means Spain is now part of a select group that includes the Dominican Republic, Fiji and Brunei.

By contrast, neighbouring Portugal comes 31st in the rankings for ease of starting a business, while Italy holds the 81st spot and the regional (high income OECD) average is 61.

This ranking of 136 is a particularly disappointing one for Spain given there has actually been a worldwide upswing in the straightforwardness of starting a new business from scratch. Average time frames have dropped from 50 to 30 days since 2005.

In Spain, it takes an average 28 days to sign off on all the legal and bureaucratic steps involved in kick-starting a business. But while this is a long way down from the astonishing 114 days needed back in 2004 and 2005, the latest Doing Business report has given Spain a thumbs down on the reform front. Although changes brought in last year have trimmed procedural costs and lowered minimum capital requirements, progress has been slow.

Opening a business in Madrid still involves 10 distinct procedures – the same number as a decade ago – and continues to involve a lot of toing and froing between government offices. Spaniards know this too: a recent survey by the country’s Centro de Investigacions Sociogicas (CIS) revealed that 81.1 per cent of people believe it is difficult to set up an enterprise here, with 48.8 per cent of those respondents listing red tape as one of the top two obstacles in the process.

The World Bank/IFC Doing Business Report looks at how easy it is to do business in any given country by taking into account 11 factors including dealing with construction permits, getting credit and enforcing contracts, among others. The ease of both opening and closing businesses is also in the mix.

Overall, Spain ranks 44th for doing business, down from position 42 in 2012. The areas where Spain ranks best are ease of resolving insolvency (20th place) and paying taxes (34th spot). The poorest performing indicators, apart from staring a business, are the simplicity of getting electricity (70th in the rankings) and protecting investors (100th position).

Written by georgemills25

October 26, 2012 at 09:41

Taken for a ride

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One of the most depressing stories I’ve come across since my return to Seville – and there have been a few – involves the city’s notorious gremio del taxi, or taxi union.

Seville’s taxi drivers often make cameo appearances in the media here, and almost never for the right reasons. Yesterday, for example, the local Diario de Sevilla newspaper reported that two taxis have been set alight in Seville in the last fortnight – apparently as part of ongoing turf war between factions of the taxi union over pre-arranged pick-ups at the city’s airport and main train station.

But the story I’m referring is of a darker hue. For years, the company that operates Seville’s city urban lines, Tussam, has ran a cheap and efficient service out to the airport. It departs every half an hour from near the city centre and a single ticket for the 10-kilometre trip sets you back a very reasonable €2.40.

I’m very happy with this arrangement: I’ve always considered the presence of a cheap public transport link to an airport as one of the hallmarks of a civilised city. It appears, though, that some of Seville’s taxi drivers are of a different philosophical bent. Because apparently – as Tussam management chose to phrase it – ‘certain taxi drivers’ have been threatening the drivers of their airport buses for months.

These threats have taken the form of blows to the side of Tussam’s buses when their timetabled departure time swings around. The taxi drivers then yell at the bus drivers to get a move on, even if there are people still trying to board the bus.

The idea, of course, is to leave those waiting passengers stranded and with no option but to fork out for a taxi.

Journalists from the Diario de Sevilla recently went out to the airport (presumably not by taxi) to get a feel for the situation on the ground and discovered that, while things were a little calmer, Tussam’s employees at San Pablo Airport remained on edge. A ticket seller serving the waiting passengers had chosen not to wear company identification and was keeping his head down.

Unfortunately there is no happy ending here. In response to this intimidation from what may only be a handful of sinvergüenzas, or scoundrels, Tussam have upped their one-way airport fares to €4. That’s a rise of around 160 per cent. Meanwhile, the taxis will continue to charge their minimum €21.89. Those ‘certain taxi drivers’ ought to be crippled with shame right about now.

Written by georgemills25

October 25, 2012 at 11:19

Posted in bullying, mafia, seville, transport

Tagged with , ,

Reading between the lines

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Today is National Library Day in Spain but the country’s readers have little cause for celebration.

The budget for Spain’s network of 52 national libraries has been slashed by 20 per cent over the last two years and anecdotal evidence suggests the picture for the country’s more than 5,000 municipal libraries is even grimmer.

A week ago, leading Spanish newspaper El Pais reported on the dire financial situation of the library of Guadalajara, a town of some 85,000 people about an hour’s drive from Madrid. To all intents and purposes, Guadalajara’s library is a resounding success story. Frequented by 40 per cent of the local population, it boasts over 30,000 users. The institution doesn’t just loan out books; it has positioned itself as a centre of cultural activity by running reading clubs, staging concerts and hosting art exhibitions. But the money has dried up.

Back in 2007, before the crisis hit, this thriving library had €150,000 to splash on new material. This year, the figure is down to €46,000. In 2013, the library’s administrators are expecting nothing. That’s right. Not one euro.

Fortunately for Guadalajara, its citizens are helping pick up the tab. Readers are currently forking out for subscriptions to 62 publications and a number of library card holders have donated their entire book collections to help keep the shelves interesting.

But the outlook for most of Spain’s libraries is not as positive. The latest figures from Spain’s culture ministry show that 56 institutions saw their doors close for good in 2010. In 2006 and 2007, by contrast, a total of 170 libraries were born.

One of the institutions that closed last year was in the conservative southern city of Granada. Towards the end of 2011, a group of concerned residents in the neighbourhood of Zaidín staged a long protest to draw attention to the plight of their local lending library. After a 3-month standoff, they suffered the indignity of being forcefully removed by local police.

Footage of the event shows protesters cheerfully singing on the library steps on a cold winter morning. At one point, a large red truck pulls up and the drivers emerge to strip the small municipal library of its treasures. Several members of the Policía Local have also turned up for good measure. These officers proceed to politely explain their actions to the gathered protesters and then begin to carry away the irate locals one at a time.

The actions of the police were – procedurally speaking at least – beyond reproach, but the frustration of the aggrieved locals is indicative of the way that many people in Spain are beginning to see such cuts as unnecessarily punitive.

There is, too, something particularly dispiriting about reductions in spending on culture. As the Spanish novelist Javier Marías pointed out in a recent post to his weekly blog, the more difficult everyday life becomes, the greater our need for escape.

In a staunch defence of his industry, Marías pointed out that what people call “culture” – whether movies or books or music – contributes 4 per cent to Spain’s GDP and provides jobs to some 600,000 people. More importantly, though, the novelist stressed the loss to the imaginative realm that is resulting from the Spanish government’s penchant for budget cuts.

Marías finishes by quoting Isak Dinesen who once said: “All pain becomes bearable if it is transformed into a story.” Unfortunately, the story of Spain’s crisis is far from over.

Written by georgemills25

October 24, 2012 at 12:16