Wednesday 30 June 2010

Madrid's Metro Goes On Strike

In the past couple of days I have witnessed great patience and great anger in Madrid. I have seen tired resignation and very vocal frustration.

On Monday employees of the Madrid Metro began what was meant to be a three day strike in protest against a cut in wages. All workers for government departments, both local and national, have had to take a five percent pay cut in the face of Spain’s severe debts. Despite an attempt by the unions of the “funcionarios” to organise demonstrations of protest, which were not well attended, and a day long strike which the vast majority of the civil servants ignored, government departments have continued more or less as normal.

But the staff of the Metro, despite working for what has to be the most subsidized public utility in Spain, do not consider themselves “funcionarios”. They claim that they are employees of a public company, but not a government department. Years ago they reached an agreement over pay and conditions which stated that in the event of a dispute they would continue to operate “servicios mínimo”, a much reduced service which would at least allow the citizens to get to their jobs. This agreement carried the weight of law.

On Monday, this was what happened, and despite grumbles on the platforms, people did get to work. But negotiations between the comunidad, who own Metro Madrid, and the unions broke down. So on Tuesday the workers refused to provide even the minimum service they are required by law to do.

According to comments on Facebook, tweets on twitter, TV and newspapers, Madrid “Colapso”. Well, not exactly. The people of Madrid are made of strong stuff. But when, at a stroke, the means of moving two million people a day disappears, confusion is bound to result.

Yesterday, luckily, I did not need to use the Metro, but I did have to take three buses. I stood at the stop and watched as two buses passed me by as they were already bursting at the seams. One, after failing to stop for passengers had to come to rest a few metres further on because the traffic lights were at red. Some of my fellow would-be travellers rushed to the bus and began pounding on the doors. But you cannot put a quart into a pint pot and the driver refused to open up.

As well as the bus service, which is excellent but subject to traffic delays, Madrid does had the Cercanías, a suburban network of trains that come right into the heart of the city. These were running as normal and today have been augmented, as have the buses. And I would imagine it’s been a profitable time for the taxi drivers.

If I remember correctly Madrid buses have seating for 33 and standing room for a further 66. That’s 99 people squeezed into one bus. There were scenes on last evening’s news that showed that figure was being exceeded in many cases, but I remember the large lady attempting to board a bus at the Plaza de Castilla which hadn’t a spare inch to spare hanging out of the door and expecting the driver to take her. The resulting argument was far too fast for my slow Spanish, but demonstrated that tempers were beginning to flare.

Not the least because the drivers of the Madrid Metro are reputed to be among the best paid in the city. One comment on Facebook yesterday was quite scathing that drivers on €40,000 a year were making life very difficult and creating lost wages for those paid hourly for workers who earned far less. Those of us who have to move about the city to do our jobs were experiencing journey times four times longer than normal, which led to cancelled meetings and lost earnings.

Of course the politicians are getting in on the act. The vice president of Spain, María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, has criticised Esperanza Aguire, the Presisdent of the Comunidad of Madrid, saying, “One has to know how to manage these conflicts”, when all Espe has done is to follow the government’s decree of introducing the five percent pay cut. Giving that these two women are on opposite sides of the political spectrum there is bound to be mud-slinging. The secretary general of the socialist party of Madrid, Tomás Gomez, hold Espe totally responsible, claiming she has been provoking this strike “for weeks”.

The mayor of the city, Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, has reminded the drivers of their “legal and moral obligation” to maintain minimum services. But then no one pays him much attention anyway. It seems this illegal strike will have no early solution.

There had an attempt yesterday. The police were called in to restore service on line 8, the line that runs from the airport to Nuevos Ministerios. The television showed lines of policemen patrolling the station and even one train leaving the platform. But no passengers were carried and they couldn’t find enough drivers. So the attempt was abandoned.

And I am not sure that would be a good thing. Our TV screens have been showing scenes of the rioting in Greece caused by confrontations between the police and the people. We do not want that here.

According to the latest reports this strike will be indefinite. Next weekend Madrid celebrates Gay Pride week. There will be tens of thousands of people on the streets and wanting to move about the city. At a meeting of the drivers this morning (Wednesday) they were asked to return to work over the weekend and resume their strike on Monday. For some of the drivers this was seen as a further opportunity to push their case and if the Gay Pride weekend was ruined, so be it!

However, it seems cooler heads have prevailed and from tomorrow the servicios mínimos will resume. I wonder if the fact that four members of a picket line were attacked by angry commuters this morning had anything to do with that.

Angry comments from both sides have been all over the internet. There are those who habitually complain about the metro, who claim the drivers have an easy job as much of the work is actually automatic. “All the drivers do is open and close the doors”, said one. Another, who points out that drivers can often be seen reading the newspaper as they supposedly control the train (something I have seen!), and that the employees at the ticket counters do the same and never want to serve their customers.

Meanwhile a driver points out that being stuck underground for eight hours a day is no picnic. That they have the stress of wondering if someone is about to throw themselves off the platform and the nuisance of idiots who pull the emergency stop because they are drunk. Often drivers are alone on the train. Some evenings there might be a guard with a dog on board, but a hundred and fifty metres of train is difficult to police. A ticket vendor complained that travellers have ten day to buy their monthly “abono”, a month’s season ticket, but 95% queue up to buy it on the last day and then complain about slow service.

According to some very quickly generated statistics, on Tuesday the EMT, the bus service, carried 2,092,000 passengers. A 45% increase over normal days. And taxi drivers claim to have had a 30% increase in business.

Meanwhile, Espe has stated she “admires” the people of Madrid for their forbearance.

Since 1976 the Madrid metro has had around twenty strikes, only two of them, in February ‘84 and January ’91 have the servicios mínimos been withdrawn from service.

Well, we are back to a 50% service tomorrow, Thursday, and hopefully it won’t be long before the “best metro in the world” is back to normal.

Reading all the comments has been good for my Spanish. Now I know that “Huelgo salvaje” mean wildcat strike. I learnt a few other words too that I could not repeat here. Although I did read one that used good old Anglo Saxon. I can only say that should the author of that comment repeats it here, she will be censored!!!!! But then, of all the days she chose to move house. What rotten timing.

I have my own thoughts. What do you think??

Sunday 20 June 2010

Behind the veil of prejudice

By Richard Morley.
For the past four Saturdays as I have journeyed on the metro into Madrid city centre, I have travelled, quite coincidentally, in the same carriage as an attractive young lady. I have no idea who she is, but we are obviously creatures of habit. She has a pretty face with large, intelligent, brown eyes. She wears light make up and bright, colourful attractive tops and jeans and stylish shoes. In almost every way a typical modern young lady. Except one. I have no idea what her hair is like. She keeps it covered under a cream coloured headscarf. Or as she would call it, a hijab.

She is one of Madrid’s Muslim population.

Twice a week I take the number 122 bus. I often see a quite tall lady board the bus with her two young children she has just collected from school. All I know about her is that she wears a modern style of spectacles. That’s all I can see. Two bespectacled eyes through a tiny slit in the veil that covers her face. Her head and face is completely hidden, as is her body, under the shoulder to feet black abayah that swathes her.

She is one of Madrid’s Muslim population.

None of this is strange to me. For nearly forty years I have worked in Muslim countries. From Tunis to Muscat I have encountered Muslim women. On shopping expeditions into Surt, in Libya, I would regularly chat to the tee-shirted, blue-jeaned girl at the check-out. In Tunis I went to the zoo with ladies who would not look out of place in any European capital. In Egypt our office typist wore sweaters that had us poor guys eating out of her hand. In Somalia, where the sun beats down and the humidity drowns the girls wear light, thin wraps that disguise nothing. And in the gulf states the women dress in black from head to foot and are totally unapproachable. I went to a Saudi wedding where women were not allowed. When I offered to drive my boss’s wife home I was told this was not allowed as I could not be in the company of a woman who was not a relation. In fact, I rarely met a Saudi woman at all. I had lunch at a friend’s house and his wife hid in the kitchen while he fetched the food.

I wrote the last paragraph to demonstrate that pretty obviously, the rules pertaining to female dress in the world of Islam are not fixed and are a matter of tradition rather than religion. The Koran simply states that women should “dress modestly”, but from country to country the term, “modest” is up for interpretation. I remember reading of an old lady in western Saudi Arabia who said when she was a girl the veil was not a requirement and she was dammed if she was going to start at the age of seventy, as her local imam had told her to. Others told me that the introduction of the abayah into Saudi Arabia came when they were part of the Turkish Ottoman empire. Women had not dressed like that since the days of Mohammed. In the fourteen hundred and odd years of Islam, the abayah and the veil are relatively new. Strangely, the modern Turkish state now bans the veil!

The young lady on the metro with whom I began this piece is actually more “traditional” than the abayah swathed lady on the bus.

What prompts me to write this is the news that the town council of Barcelona has recently passed a law that will make it illegal to wear the veil. A statement from the Barcelona municipal government says, “Barcelona will forbid the use of the burqa, niqab and any other item which hinders personal identification in any of the city's public installations." Actually, this is sloppy reporting and / or interpretation by Reuters as the Burqa is the heavy drape worn in Afghanistan. They really mean the abayah.

Alberto Fernandéz, a member for the conservative Party Popular faction of the Barcelona ayuntamiento, says, "The use of the burqa and niqab undermines the dignity and freedom of women.” He continues, “"The mayoral decree is a half-measure, because as well as forbidding the burqa and niqab in public installations, it is necessary to forbid it on the street”.

The ban will take effect after the summer.

There are similar voices to that of Señor Fernandéz here in Madrid. Not long ago a young Muslim woman was forced to change schools when her school banned the use of head coverings.

Statistics from last year claim that three percent of Spain’s population are Muslim. It used to be much more. (Honestly, no pun intended!) From 711 until 1492 much of Spain was under the rule of Islam, which is about two hundred years longer than the current Catholic church has existed here. Spain is actually very proud of its Islamic architectural heritage. The Alhambra in Granada is one of the country’s most visited sites, as is the mosque in Cordoba. Yet I hear the voice of Madrilleños who dislike this new incursion.

A couple of years ago the ayuntamiento of Madrid gave a building near the Retiro park to the Muslim community. There were posters stuck up everywhere opposing this. Of course, the number of posters, which were the work of Spain’s very right wing Frente Naciónal party, do not accurately reflect the voice of the moderate majority. But they are very vocal and the publicity must make people think.

And I have heard their concerns voiced. With the increase in immigration over the past few years people have voiced concerns about how some neighbourhoods are changing. Places they have lived for years are taking on a whole new character with which they are unfamiliar. Low paid jobs that used to be done by Spaniards and are now performed by immigrants have become a hot topic for discussion in this time of economic crisis.

And there is definitely some prejudice. I remember having this discussion with a Spanish man and he went on and on about the “inmigrantes” and how they were changing the face of his country. After twenty minutes, when I could finally get a word in edgeways, I smiled and said, “But I am an immigrant. I live here permanently, use your health service, your subsidised transport and pay those taxes I have to pay”.

Quickly, perhaps to backtrack a little, he replied, “But you are different”. Meaning, I am quite sure, that I am a white, western European and not different at all, but just like him.

There are a few tens of thousands Western European and North American working in Madrid, and we have been here a long time. Because of the way we dress and act and support ourselves we assimilate and go un-noticed. (I write “in Madrid” because I am all too aware that a lot of my countrymen and women live in other parts of Spain and never try to fit in, which is a pity.) But in the past five years immigration from other parts of the world where people look and dress and act and believe very differently from the Spanish has increased dramatically. The people who arrive on flimsy boats from Africa and other economic migrants cost Spain a small fortune, which is a matter for another post. But they come and are now a very visible presence among us.

And to some, that is frightening.

I was halfway through writing this when the minister of Justice, Fransisco Caamaño, made a decree in the Spanish government. Following on from what I wrote earlier about Barcelona he declared that “the use of the burqa in pubic spaces would be banned nationwide”. He stated, “(The wearing of these clothes) is incompatible with human dignity and above all with the fundamental elements of identification of people in public areas”. In his judgement, “The burqa does not respect the dignity of humanity, and especially that of women”. In our society he probably voices the opinion of many.

Now, there are some ladies, and I use the term loosely, who are not of immigrant descent around Madrid who also dress in a not very dignified manner. Especially on Friday and Saturday nights. Should they be legislated against also?

And while I am reporting the Justice Minister’s edict, I might point out that he was talking about a change in the “Ley de Libertad Religiosa”, the law of religious liberty, to restrict the wearing of these clothes that are only worn by those of the Islamic faith. There is some irony here, surely. If he is to change this particular law, to be just, he cannot restrict the wearing of apparel for only one religion. No one will be able to wear any clothing that pertains to a religion. So if Muslims cannot wear what they feel most comfortable in, then to be fair, neither can any other religion, which would encompass all the nuns, monks and priests in Spain.

And what would the Pope be allowed to wear if he made a pastoral visit?

One of his predecessors, Pope Innocent III, in 1215, decreed that those of differing faiths would indeed wear different clothing as he considered it important to be able to tell a Jew or Muslim at a glance. His point was that if no one knew who was who the Christian church could be infiltrated and Christian values distorted. Two of the canons he enacted stated that, “Jews and Muslims shall wear a special dress to enable them to be distinguished from Christians. Christian princes must take measures to prevent blasphemies against Jesus Christ”.

Today, Islam is concerned about Christian doctrine influencing the philosophy of Mohammed.

There has been some debate about the appropriateness of clothes for young girls that imitate those of their more mature sisters. Recently in the UK there was an outcry about padded bikini tops for pre-pubescent girls. But the truth is that girls do want to grow up quickly. And funnily enough this is also displayed in Islamic cultures too. A few years ago a mother in Saudi Arabia wrote to a newspaper asking for advice about her young daughter who WANTED to wear the abayah despite not yet having reached the age of menarche, when she would have her first period. Before that age the abayah is not required, but her daughter wanted to emulate her elder sisters and her mother wanted her to stay a little girl.

You see, it’s cultural - not religious. And that little girl did not think it infringed her dignity to wear the abayah. It made her more grown up, more dignified. So before politicians start making claims they should understand the facts.

My own feeling is that people should wear what the hell they like. I must confess to having a prejudice against hats. I can’t trust anyone who wears one. But then some people feel like that about beards and I have one of those. So that fear, like mine with hats, is irrational. It’s the same with someone else’s traditional dress.

However, I will also confess that when the veiled woman gets on the bus with her kids, I feel uneasy. I cannot make that first impression we all do when we see a stranger for the first time. We have good reason for asking motorcyclists to remove their helmets when entering a bank or other public building and see no reason why another group of people should not also obey those rules.

I have no problem with the girl on the metro. A headscarf does not present a danger to security. For purposes of security the veil should be banned, but don’t try to disguise this legislation under laws of equality, women’s rights or religious freedoms. This would actually remove a freedom.

Close to where I live is Madrid’s mosque. As I walked past it yesterday on the way to lunch with friends I saw lots of kids outside playing like any other kids. Watching over them was a woman in an abayah, her face UNcovered. It seemed all perfectly normal to me. Why does it frighten others? Is it because they are different?

I thought Spain approved of being different.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Manzanas y Naranjas.

By Richard Morley.

Is it because Spain’s largest chain of department stores, El Corte Inglés, has the word “Inglés” in its name that it insists on using the English language in its advertising? Like last year, this year’s hot weather fashion is being introduced on hoardings with the word, “Summertime” prominently displayed. Now that the hot weather seems to have arrived to stay, after all, the fortieth of May will be here in a matter of hours, the store is attempting to sell us its range of cooling devices under the heading of “FANtastico”. A half decent pun in English, but an electric fan in Spanish is a ventilador. The semi-circular flappy thing that women use to cool themselves and dance flamenco is called an abanico.
So how much of the passing public get the joke?

As my lawyer friend suggests, is El Corte Inglés trying to attract the “posh” Madrileños by using a foreign language. I pondered this a year ago. Meanwhile there are better bargains to be found in any Chinese shop in town. My €14 pole mounted electric fan is serving me well into its third year and is less than half the price anything ECI sells.

But while the big shops have to entice us in with never-ending promotions and sales, something only seen at select times a few years ago, one group of retailers in Madrid are going from strength to strength: Fruit shops.

It seems this is definitely a fruitful area of trade. Over the last four years sales of fresh fruit have increased ten per cent each year. According to the “Confederación de Empresarios Minoristas de Madrid” and the “Asociación de Empresarios Detallistas de Fruta de Madrid”, who call themselves “Adefruta”, the city now has more than four thousand of small, independent fruit sellers.

Green grocery is hard work with long hours, so it is perhaps telling that according to this report the vast majority of the owners of these shops are immigrants. Alejandro González of Adefruta makes the point that the cost of capital equipment is low and so is an ideal start-up business for those with not much money. Run by Chinese, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis they also open early, don’t close for siesta, and stay open until late, something my local Spanish run fruit shop fails to do!

Luis Pacheco, director of my favourite fruit and veg shop, Gold Gourmet, (at the cheap end of José Ortega y Gassett,) which does stay open all day, claims that Madrileños are very concerned with the quality of the fruit they buy and are conscious of the benefits to their health. To demonstrate this, statistics show that the population now consumes 11.7% more fruit and vegetables than the rest of Spain.

I sometimes wonder about people who collect statistics! The detail! Now I know that on average we spend €1500 a year on food. Of that €146 is spent on fruit and veg, €360 on meat and €212 on fish. So we are a long way from a vegetarian society yet!

And I also would bet good money that it is the expats that buy most of that fruit.

I wonder what we spend the other €782 on!

Feel free to comment below.