Working class poverty and deceitful promises

8 October, 2020

Yesterday, the Caritas report on “Decent Work” was published. Using official data, the analysts paint a picture of the extent of precarization and pauperization among Spanish workers nowadays… before the pandemic and the new push of the recession.


Almost 4 out of 10 workers (34.6%) do not have a stable full-time job. Of the 13.5% of the population who have a part-time job, almost half of them, 48.1%, would like to be employed full time.


If we focus on the serious labor instability section, we find 7.8 million workers in a situation that is extended through their families. What does this serious instability mean for these working families? For 52.2%, it means not being able to face unforeseen expenses, so almost all of them, 42% of the total, have to ask for help from relatives and friends for basic things. 3 out of 10 families in this situation are unable to meet basic rent, mortgage or utility payments and 2 out of 10 have received shut-off notices because of insufficient money to pay for them.


In Spain, having a job is not enough to avoid poverty. 2.5 million workers live in poverty despite being employed. They make up 13% of the total and are not even the worst off: another 3.1% are under severe poverty. On the border are 615,000 workers without access to legal protections and basic coverage. This figure includes migrant undocumented workers. A quarter of them declare to suffer humiliating or degrading working conditions.


The famous safeguards for the most vulnerable do not reach the vast majority of the most precarious working families. Only one out of four (24.8%) households supported by a person in a situation of serious labor instability receive some kind of unemployment benefit or minimum income.

The income gap trap

Finally, the report uses the methodology of gaps. This is a tricky methodology because it mixes social classes, time of arrival on the labor market, etc. and above all, implicitly, it creates the idea of collective subjects (women, young people, non-natives, etc.) who should as a whole receive a part of the wage mass proportional to their sociological size. In other words, the idea is that for an equal number of employees in a company, the sum of wages paid to women/young people/non-natives, etc. should be equal in total, regardless of how it is distributed among workers, managers, directors and owners within the same collective subject.

The trap is that this has nothing to do with receiving equal pay for equal work, nor with having similar hiring conditions for similar jobs, but with these imaginary groups having a greater or lesser presence among the middle and upper management of the companies, whose salaries are much higher. Hiring a great manager like Ana Botín (who has a salary of 7.8 million euros per year) has more effect on the gender gap than raising by 50% the salary of 1,126 workers earning the minimum wage of 13,300 euros per year. Hiring the son of an SME owner as a boss would end the gender gap of the average Spanish SME and hiring a couple of foreign managers would reverse the gender gap of an average industrial company.

Whether the origin gap is greater than the generational gap or the latter than the gender gap tells us little or nothing about how precarization and discrimination are articulated to extract every last drop of unpaid work. Identities do not work, nor are the managers and cadres dedicated to organizing work in the company part of the working class, even if they receive a part of the benefits in the form of a wage.

The value of the data

The report, which is actually a collection of official data, is quite consistent with previous reports. A few months before the outbreak of the pandemic, on October 17th, the AROPE report was published, a European indicator of the risk of poverty and exclusion drawn up with data from Eurostat and the INE for the period between 2008 and 2018. The figures worsened again in 2018 in Spain despite the increase in GDP. The number of people who had difficulty making ends meet increased and now accounted for more than half of the total population. They were unable to meet unforeseen expenses, turn on the heating in winter or eat meat, chicken or fish at least every other day.

That is why all these data, those of Cáritas and those of Eurostat, are important now, precisely because they are old. It is assumed that those were prosperous years when compared to the current situation. Yet the situation of the working class was clearly not as great as that of the GDP. Precarization and pauperization of workers are permanent trends. They are not due to the pandemic, even if they are aggravated by it. They are permanent tendencies because whenever capital finds difficulties in continuing to grow it can only recover by transferring income from labor. And although the data vary with global economic moments and junctures, the causes are structural: global markets cannot grow as much as the investments already made would need to keep accumulation running. To put it bluntly: capital finds it increasingly difficult to grow, and even in situations of supposed prosperity like 2018 and 2019 in Spain, if it did grow, it was at the expense of our living and working conditions.

And this is something that is more important than ever to remember now. Yesterday, Sánchez promised 800,000 jobs, to leave no one behind and to end the gender gap. The message was: Be nice, accept cuts and lower wages, accept that the killing will proceed without stopping the companies, that this will end someday and then welfare will return.

This is not true. With more precarization we can only go back to the path that led to increased precarization, more unemployment -as the government’s own economic forecasts recognize– and more poverty.

Wage share in Spanish GDP since 1978 (including profit shares disguised as wages) The labor share only grows when capital crashes and has not yet had time to attack wages, spending on labor power maintenance and working conditions even more.

The main gap is not the gender one, nor the generational one, nor any other statistical invention. The gap that tears this society apart is that which separates the part of social production that workers receive, that is, the part of what we produce together that is dedicated to satisfying our needs, from the part that is dedicated to accumulating capital. The part of labor does not cease to decline in relative terms. And with a permanent tendency towards crisis for decades, this means that it is falling more and more frequently in absolute terms as well.

That is, capitalism mobilizes more and more resources into making us poorer in relative terms. But when crisis devalues capital, it impoverishes us in absolute terms in order to regain momentum. And since in every cycle capital finds it increasingly difficult to recover, we have been suffering from precarization and impoverishment for more than ten years without ever recovering. All the plans for the recovery of capital are plans to worsen the global situation of the workers.


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