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Why are staff at Spanish embassies around the world on strike?

Staff at Spanish embassies and consulates in at least seven different countries have joined a strike that started in the UK, leading to delays in visa processing for many around the world.

Spanish embassy London
Staff at the Spanish Embassy in London in 2017. Photo: Tolga AKMEN / AFP

If there ever was a clear indication that Spanish salaries and work conditions are not in line with that of their European counterparts, this may be it. 

It all began on March 14th 2022, when workers at the Spanish Embassy in London called an indefinite strike. 

They demand and continue to demand a salary update after thirteen years of reported wage freezes, equal pay for all workers in the same administrative category, and the option of contributing to Spain’s social security system rather than the UK’s. 

The manifesto by Spain’s consular staff explaining the reasons for the strike, under the headline “Abandoned”.

The salaries of Spain’s consular staff in the UK range between €20,000 and €26,000 per year, not enough to cover London’s sky-high living costs, employees rightfully claim.

READ ALSO: Spanish Embassy staff in UK go on strike over pay and work conditions

These demands and strike actions were replicated at consulates in Manchester and Edinburgh later on in March, and although the huelgas (strikes) in the United Kingdom have been reduced to a couple of hours a day after strike organisers PLEX (Labour Personnel of the Foreign Service) reached some consensus with Madrid, the problems aren’t completely resolved yet.

In fact, anger against Spain’s Foreign Affairs Ministry (Ministerio de Exteriores) appears to be boiling over around the world.

Domino effect 

Protests in the UK have now incited strikes among Spanish embassy staff in other countries including France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Ireland and Australia.

Staff based in China are also showing their support by sending letters to their superiors with similar demands.

In Israel, Spanish consular workers are protesting outside their embassy during their lunch breaks, and throughout Latin America embassy staff are getting ready to carry out their own strikes.  

As is the case with staff in the UK, they are challenging their low pay and wage freezes, which they claim often don’t meet the minimum wage in the country they’re living in.

According to union representatives, all staff abroad have had their salaries “frozen since 2009, despite inflation and greater pressure on the workforce, which is creating an increasingly tense environment”.

In France at the consulate in Lyon, worker Marta Navarro has said that they “earn below the French minimum interprofessional salary and that the only way the consulate is managing to function is due to internship staff” who can be paid less.  

While in Germany, Spanish embassy staff are protesting the loss of purchasing power after 13 years of salary freezing, for which they demand a salary increase. The salary of a consular official at the Berlin consulate is around €36,732 per year. 

In Brussels, employees say that although in 2019 there was a 3.2 percent increase in wages in most European Union countries, it did not make up for the loss of purchasing power. They argue that in the last nine months there have been four wage increases in Belgium and they have not received any of them. 

And down under in Australia, Marcos Redondo, an official of the Spanish Consulate in Sydney has told the Spanish press that “in 2017 they were on strike for 35 working days.” But after almost a month and a half, the workers could not sustain the strike, as they could not afford the loss of wages. Since then, they have sent several letters addressed to the Australian ambassador to Spain saying that Sydney workers “are again below the legal minimum wage for the fifth consecutive year”. 

Although the main demand of Exteriores‘ workforce abroad is a wage increase, they also want a labour agreement, which will regulate their working conditions. Those in the UK also want to be able to contribute to Spain’s social security system rather than the UK’s, which since Brexit offers higher benefits than the British system.

Visa processing delays and longer waiting times

Spain’s embassies and consulates abroad are responsible for issuing Spanish passports, offering assistance to Spanish nationals and processing visas for foreigners who want to move to Spain, among other responsibilities. 

There have been reports that hundreds of Spaniards residing in the UK are trapped in the country as a result of their passports expiring and not  being able to get an appointment to renew their documents at the Spanish embassy or consulates for months, even before the strikes began in March.

This showcases how deep rooted the problems are at Spain’s embassies and consulates in the UK. In 2021, Spain went for six months without having an Ambassador in the United Kingdom and there have been ongoing complaints for the past years about long queues, poor service and lengthy processing times, all of which have worsened as a result of Covid-19 and Brexit.

Spanish embassy and consular workers by contrast argue that they are not only underpaid, they are understaffed.

From a foreigner’s perspective, the recent strikes in the UK have meant that anyone trying to apply for Spain’s Non-Lucrative Visa, Golden Visa, work visas or student visas has had to wait longer than they had originally planned for appointments and processing, causing some documentation to expire and affecting their relocation goals. 

This backlog of applications is now slowly but surely addressed in the United Kingdom, but new strikes and protests by consular staff around the world are likely to result in a similar limbo for many other applicants who have to deal with Spanish embassies or consulates.

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Spain and the US to exchange more language assistants in bilingualism push    

The governments of Spain and the United States have agreed to recruit more English and Spanish-language assistants from each other’s countries as a means of bolstering bilingual education in the two nations.

Spain and the US to exchange more language assistants in bilingualism push    

Spain’s Education Minister Pilar Alegría and US ambassador to Spain Julissa Reynoso met on Wednesday to sign a memorandum of understanding which will reinforce educational cooperation between the two countries. 

The agreement had been previously signed by Miguel Cardona, the United States Secretary of Education, who tweeted: “This week, alongside [Spanish] Ambassador [Santiago] Cabañas, I signed a memorandum supporting the study of Spanish language & culture in the US, and the study of English in Spain”.

It is in fact a renewal of a memorandum between the United States and Spain which has facilitated mobility of both conversation assistants and students between the two countries in recent years.

The aim of this newest memorandum of understanding is to further strengthen student and teacher exchange programmes and promote bilingual and multicultural teaching in both educational systems.

No exact details have yet been given about how many extra language assistants will be given grants to join the programme. 

Several teacher recruitment sources suggest the current number of North American language assistants (including Canadians) heading to Spain every year is between 2,000 and 2,500. 

The Spanish government has stated that in 2023, this figure will be around 4,500, which represents a considerable increase in the number of US and Canadian citizens who can apply through the NALCAP programme, which stands for North American Language and Culture Assistants in Spain. 

According to Spain’s Foreign Ministry, the following requirements must be met by US candidates in order to participate in the programme:

  • Be a U.S. citizen and have a valid passport
  • Have earned a bachelor’s degree or be currently enrolled as a sophomore, junior or a senior in a bachelor’s programme. Applicants may also have an associate degree or be a community college student in their last semester.
  • Have a native-like level of English
  • Be in good physical and mental health
  • Have a clean background check
  • Be aged 18 – 60.
  • Have at least basic knowledge of Spanish (recommended)

NALCAP recipients receive a monthly stipend of €700 to €1,000 as well as Spanish medical insurance.

Application dates for 2023 are usually announced in late November. See more information on the NALPAC programme for US nationals here

According to The Fulbright Program, one of several US cultural exchange programmes that organises the recruitment of US nationals for Spain: “English Teaching Assistants assist teaching staff at the early childhood, elementary, middle school, high school, vocational and/or university level for up to 16 hours per week, with an additional two hours for planning & coordination meetings. Responsibilities include assistant-teaching, in English, subjects such as social studies, science and technology, art, physical education, and English language.”

READ MORE: The pros and cons of being an English language assistant in Spain

There are also currently more than 1,000 Spanish teachers working as visiting teachers in the United States, Spain’s Moncloa government has said, without adding yet how many more will be recruited in 2023.

Additionally, more than 1,000 North American students now take part in the Spanish Language and Culture Groups managed by the Spanish Education Ministry’s Overseas Education Action (or Acción Educativa Exterior, AEE).  

Canadian applicants can find out more about working as language assistants in Spain by visiting the NALCAP Canada website.