Category Archives: Spain

Paying to own a pet shop: Spain’s odd approach to self-employment


This is Leti, her pet shop and her parrot. Fi made friends with Leti when she spent a year studying in Spain, and with the parrot when we visited the town she lived in out of Madrid. Leti started her store there about a year ago. She and her brother breed parrots, contract in doggie hair dressers and run an impressive collection of programmes that teach kids to take care of pets.

Anyone investing in their ideas and starting a new business is brave. But doubly so in Spain at the moment when the economy is in the doldrums, unemployment is around 20% and more than double that for those under thirty. In that context you might think that government would be going out of its way to support young entrepreneurs and innovators. Not so, in fact, arguably the opposite.

On top of standard income taxes and fees to register their business, autónomos are required to pay about an extra $400NZD/month. This is a large burden given the cost of living is similar to New Zealand.

This payment is in lieu of paying a proportion of income into superannuation and unemployment insurance funds. A flat fee, it seems especially unfair when ordinary employees pay a proportion of their income, and the value of unemployment and superannuation benefits are a function of income too. I’m assuming the payment is flat because it is easy for the self-employed to hide income, but that is little consolation for those who have little income to hide.

Frustrations about the fees are widespread. When Leti shared hers we were having tapas with friends. Everyone was sympathetic. Everyone had a friend, or an aunt or a mother who was struggling with them. There are whole forums that talk about frustrations with the system. Apparently some freelance teachers (think those who give piano or English lessons) de-register for the summer months to avoid paying the fees, but they have to do so for a full month at a time, and forgo single days or work as a result.

New Zealand consistently ranks amongst the easiest countries in the world in which to do business. And I was always like, “yea the companies office website is quite good, but that can’t explain it…” Now I get it a little more. My sense is that if you had a well conceived idea for a new business in NZ you’d be more likely to get money from the government, than be asked to give more than you might if you worked for someone else.

Policy wonk digest – Spain

Madrid street performer1
One of Madrid’s many excellent street performers, this guy now needs to audition for a licence to do his thing.

  • Vodafone has sponsored one of Madrid’s metro lines, and received naming rights to its central station as a result. What was Sol is now Vodafone Sol and on many maps it is represented only by the Voda logo. I’m sure some historical purists are a bit irked by this but in a world where, like stadia, metro systems are generally highly subsidised, I’m all for them attracting corporate sponsorship like stadia too.
  • Madrid, its plazas and metro are all famous for street performers and buskers, many of whom we have enjoyed immensely. But with high levels of unemployment regulators have become concerned that there will be too many, they will be too average, and too loud. As a result street performers now need to audition for a one year license, they’re required to move spots every two hours and they can’t be within twenty five metres of another performer.
  • The audition video from one music group, who call themselves the Potato Omelete band went viral after they choose to sing their criticisms of the Madrid Mayor’s policies.
  • Unemployment in Spain in horrific. It currently sits at 23.6%, a number that is high by any standard but has recently been celebrated as the lowest since 2011. Young Spaniards we talk to find it totally implausible that we left jobs at home to travel for a year. Here, if you have a job you hang on to it as hard as you can.
  • One strategy firms are using to avoid further redundancies here is to reduce employee’s hours so that they don’t return after their lunch break. It’s like a more drastic version of the ‘nine day fortnight’ some employers in New Zealand used at the peak of the economic crisis.
  • Largely a response to a history of violence from Basque separatist group ETA, Spain has some of the most draconian ant-terror laws in the world. In many countries free speech is illegal if you use it to incite violence. In Spain praising terrorists can land you in jail too. Julen Orbe has recently been convicted for writing an article marking the twenty fifth anniversary of an ETA fighter who died in a car bomb malfunction. This New Republic account of his case, and the issues that surround it, is excellent.

Moorish Pork Products

Hamming it up: a Spanish family will comfortably get through one of those big legs of cured ham in a month.
Hamming it up: a Spanish family will comfortably get through one of those big legs of cured ham in a month.

Two weeks in Spain seems like the perfect dietary antidote to three months in the Muslim world. Pork is everywhere here. Between the jamon serrano (cured ham) legs that adorn every Spanish bench-top, the chorizo, bacon, ribs and chops, pork is easily the most consumed meat. I’ve seen at least half a dozen bars in Madrid each claiming to be the ‘Museum of Ham’.

A friend who made the trip down from Paris to see us for a Madrid weekend wondered how this porky prevalence came about when most of Spain was under the rule of Moorish Muslims for centuries. Then I wondered too, and set about finding out:

  • Spanish pork consumption predated the Moorish invasion. Dried ham was Spain’s main export to the rest of the Roman Empire.
  • When the Moors came many Spainards did stop eating pork. But some Christians chose to as a deliberate cat of defiance. This is almost certainly the most delicious form of political protest, ever. I’m (probably unrealistically) imagining bacon boot-leggers.
  • Eventually the Moorish invaders were pushed back by Christian armies. The Christians would force feed pork to Muslims who refused to denounce their faith. In 1504 a Moorish Mufti pronounced that it wasn’t un-Islamic to eat pork if under duress.
  • As the Moors lost power, Muslims fearing persecution would lead double lives, eating pork in public, but preserving their religion in private (they also apparently accepted baptism, but then doused themselves  with hot water to annul the ritual).

And so the Spanish pork-gobbling tradition survived the period of Moorish occupation just as its Christian institutions did, and when our San Sebastian-Madrid bus pulls over I can be confident I’ll find a bocadillo (baguette sandwich) filled to the brim with delicious cured ham. Praise be for that.

(As an aside, I found some interesting factoids when researching this post. Pork is the most eaten meat in the world, but the most widely eaten meat – included in the diet of 70% of the world’s population – is neither pork, nor chicken, nor beef, but goat.)

Sleepless in Spain

It’s as if the Spanish watch a different clock, so dramatically different is the organisation of their day. Work begins about eight thirty, possibly preceded by breakfast, probably cake, then breaks for 2-3 hours mid-afternoon. Most people still go home. They eat lunch, (three courses, the main meal of the day) have a rest (but probably not a nap), and might watch the main news bulletin at 3pm. Shops commonly close for this period too, though restaurants bustle.

It’s still ‘afternoon’ when the work day finishes about 7.30 or 8pm. As darkness falls the streets fill for the main time to socialise until afternoon finally becomes evening and a light dinner is eaten about 11pm. Bedtime is midnight or later for toddlers, grown ups and everyone in between. Going out late on the weekend means staying up until sunrise.

You might reasonably imagine that this kind of schedule is a product of Spain’s stiflingly hot summers, and the respite farm workers might seek from it around the middle of the day. But that just doesn’t seem to be the case. The siesta schedule has apparently only developed in the last century. And it has never been adopted by Portugal and Italy, who share virtually the same weather.

Other explanations point fuzzily towards culture (probably true, but kind unsatisfyingly difficult to dig into) or the fact that Spain’s timezone is skewed. Franco put the clocks in Spain forward an hour to better coordinate with Nazi Germany but never moved them back when WWII concluded. One academic describes this as like living with “71 years of jet lag”. Today we left our apartment at 8am in darkness, but we might enjoy tapas at sundown around 6pm. That’s a later sunrise and later sunset than you might ordinarily expect for a country on the verge of its winter solstice. (Incidentally, Argentinians similarly eat and sleep late, and have a similarly skewed timezone).

Sunsets over Toledo. At about 6.30pm. In the middle of winter.
Sunsets over Toledo. At about 6.30pm. In the middle of winter.

For tourists like us the siesta schedule poses some challenges. Set meal lunches are great value (about $15 for three courses and drinks) but they tend to floor us for the afternoon, especially as a half litre of wine per person is standard. If we really want to experience the movida (or movement) of the city, we need to wait up for it. And I still have to suppress a giggle when someone says good afternoon at 8pm.

There are, however, much bigger implications for Spin than for our ill-adjusted body clocks.

  • Carbon emissions are air pollution are pumped up by ‘double commute’ – the trip home at lunchtime.
  • The need to prepare a main meal in the middle of the day makes it harder to have two working parents, entrenching the expectation that fathers alone work.
  • There’s less sleep to go round. The afternoon ‘siesta’ rarely involves a nap. Dinner and bedtime are late. The Spanish average forty minutes less sleep per day than other Europeans.

Maybe most significantly, Spain’s work hours are among the longest in Europe, but its productivity among the lowest. At least that’s the claim of the dramatically named Association for the Rationalisation of Spanish Work Hours. They’re one of several groups contributing to a serious government investigation into how the Spanish structure their days. The group’s working proposal is to change the Spanish timezone, and institute standardised hours of 9am-6pm with a forty minute lunch break.

As valiant as these efforts to increase productivity might be, it’s hard to imagine a government decree in changing such a significant cultural practice. It’s not like you’re just asking people to wear seat-belts; this is a massive change to the fabric of their lives. It also seems at odds with the admirable project in other countries to make working hours less, rather than more, fixed, to support different family work configurations and work-life balance.

There is some organic movement towards siesta-less working hours. In Madrid we’re staying with a friend who chooses to work 9-6, with short breaks to breakfast and lunch. This kind of voluntary change strikes me as more sustainable. Maybe requiring employers to allow these hours, rather than requiring employees to work them, is a better way to go.

But my bigger thing is this. I reckon there’s a decent chance that Spain’s reduced productivity is not explained by work hours but sleep hours. I honestly don’t know how the folk that dine at 11pm, sleep at 1am and rise for their commute at 6am each day do it. Except to say that if I tried I am confident ‘d be a less productive, and frankly a much grumpier worker. I’m not sure that an end to long lunches is going to create earlier bedtimes. And failing some kind of draconian curfew or 10pm internet switch off, I can’t really see what government can do about it.

All the blog posts I meant to write, but haven’t

It’s been twelve days since I last posted on this blog, the single longest hiatus in a full year of traveling. I’ve been juggling full time touristing and a particularly full on time in our job search. The former takes up time, and the latter the kind of energy I would normally spend on blogs. But the most intense has likely passed so it is time to get back on the horse.

As a way to catch up this single post contains all the many things I wanted to blog about in an enormously condensed form. Click each photo to read the associated caption and get the gist of the last fortnight.