- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2005

SEVILLE, Spain — Government employees, who make up 25 percent of the work force in Spain, are waking up to a sleepless reality for 2006 — a ban on the traditional afternoon siesta.

Jordi Sevilla, minister for public administration, said the plan will improve family relationships and end the “chaotic hours” worked by state employees.

The new work schedule applies only to Spain’s 2.4 million public administrators, but Mr. Sevilla said the idea is for those workers to set “an example for other sectors and institutions.”

The lunch break will be slashed to one hour, from noon until 1 p.m., “like the rest of Europe.”

“This will allow our employees to do the same amount of work in less time,” Mr. Sevilla said.

At present bureaucrats work 371/2 hours a week, leaving work early — at 3 p.m. — three days a week, but returning after their siestas on two days.

The minister’s radical approach is backed by business lobby groups like the Circulo de Empresarios.

Its president, Claudio Boada, said long lunches were costing the economy dearly — as much as 8 percent of gross domestic product.

The 371/2-hour week is considered long by Western European standards for public employees.

Yet Spanish bureaucrats appear to be among the least productive, perhaps because they suffer from post-siesta lethargy after returning to work.

Trade unions — and many ordinary Spaniards — were aghast at the new rules.

“There will be a revolution,” said Rosana De Aza, who puts on nightly flamenco shows popular with tourists in Seville.

Another Seville resident, Hassan Amselem, whose family came to Spain from North Africa a generation ago, wondered if the news was the Spanish equivalent of an April Fools’ Day joke.

Spanish newspapers here often publish spoof stories in the days preceding the new year.

But many employees laud the proposal from the Socialist government, which came to power unexpectedly after the May 2004 terrorist train bombings.

“We waste resources and time — not only with this siesta, but with ludicrous little ‘breakfast’ and ‘tea’ breaks,” said Pedro Vera, a librarian at a state-owned university.

The idea is to “reconcile your personal and professional life,” said the ministry, which is determined to clamp down on a siesta culture that sees lunch breaks sometimes extend for up to three hours from around 2 p.m.

Coming home late from the office pushes back the end of the Spanish day as a whole, as people eat quite late — from around 10 p.m. on — and go to bed later than other Europeans.

A white paper on the issue drawn up for the government by a series of private foundations said that “56 percent of Spaniards go to bed around midnight” and that “the majority get up between 6 and 6:30.”

The paper concludes that Spaniards “sleep on average 40 minutes less” than other Europeans, reducing productivity while increasing the risk of health problems and workplace accidents.

Women in particular suffer from the lifestyle as they are called on to do two shifts comprising “their work and then their family responsibilities.”

Children also suffer with their parents absent from home for large chunks of the day.

The plan “has been well-received by employees, especially those who will be able to leave earlier,” a ministry spokesman told Agence France-Presse. “But there is a certain skepticism, and everyone is waiting to see how it will be applied.”

In September, the Que newspaper criticized the fact that the Spanish working day begins earlier than elsewhere in Europe at around 8 a.m. and lasts until 8 p.m. in some cases, with economic activity grinding almost to a halt during the long lunch break.

“We want a life after work,” demanded Que, adding that “leaving at 5 p.m. is more profitable.”

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