20 Apr, 2011 @ 13:43
4 mins read

Tied up in knots in Spain

By Wendy Williams

SHE walks over to the desk and asks to register as a freelance – or autonomo worker.

And in response – in one of the most comical viral emails of recent years – the civil servant (or funcionario) asks for the most staggeringly long list of paperwork imagineable. Some photocopied twice, others actually stapled.

So begins a dual of paperwork, in which the determined blonde professional manages to match his every demand and finally gets the stamp on her form in a tense standoff.

Anyone who has seen the short film 036, which is currently doing the rounds, will find it funny and shocking in equal parts.

But what makes the video by Juan Fernando Andres and Esteban Roel Garcia so scary, is just how true to life it really is.

For all the charms of life in Spain, it has to be said Spanish bureaucracy represents one of the biggest challenges for expats and locals alike.

Everyone I know has had their own red tape disaster story.

And most have fallen victim to the well-worn ruse of hearing that a document is missing, so go away and come back another day.

Of course, by the time you’re back (the following day because most offices only open in the morning), there is a new face behind the desk, who tells you it isn’t necessary, after all… or worse, you actually needed to get a DIFFERENT document.

One friend told me recently that she had been to the bank to cash a cheque and despite being attended by the same woman who has served her on a week-by-week basis for the last six years, this time she was told she couldn’t cash the cheque without the company stamp on the back.

My friend explained that the company didn’t – nor had ever had – a stamp and so ensured a battle of wills.

In the end the cheque was cashed, without the need for a stamp, but the whole debacle took three times as long as normal to reach the same conclusion.

The only explanation is that she caught the woman on a bad day.

It is the funcionario, and not the customer, who is always right

Because, the whole confusing situation is exacerbated by the fact that customer relations are still not exactly high on the agenda in Spain.

This was highlighted by a British employee of Santander bank, who emailed us with the correct proceedure, after one client wrote to the Olive Press complaining that she lost 40 euros cashing an international cheque.

“I get upset that customer service is sometimes so ignored here in Spain,” she explained. “I really want to try and improve this and always do my best to help people. I wish my colleagues tried to do the same more often.”

But sadly, no matter what you might think, it is the funcionario or employee, and not the customer, who is always right.

And if you lose your temper with them then you are doomed, thanks to the fact that they are practically unfireable.

Public workers, in particular, are hired through a process of official state exams known as oposiciones, and once appointed they effectively have a job-for-life.

On top of this, the percentage of government workers in Spain is one of the highest in Europe and last year it actually passed the three million figure for the first time.

With 3,088,400 to be exact, this represents a staggering 20 per cent of the Spanish workforce.

Of these, 1.7 million (55 per cent) work for autonomous communities, 544,000 work for central government, 664,000 work for local government and 152,000 work for public companies and universities.

And sadly, for now at least, Spain can probably not do without them.

For without this huge red tape army the national unemployment rate of 20 per cent would zoom up much further and probably lead to major civil strife.

So bureaucracy is here to stay, despite most Spaniards agreeing that Iberian administration is simply filled with civil servants dedicated to the task of making themselves indispensable by making life complicated for others.

And interestingly, this is a phenomenon that dates back decades.

Even before Franco came to power in 1939 there were constant changes in government which saw each successive leadership using its own cohorts to run the civil service.

By the time Franco took over he inherited a state bureaucracy that was already corrupt and where confusion reigned supreme.

Making the most of the chaos, the civil service payroll often contained the names of friends and family of bureaucrats, with people looking after their own before the public good.

When the socialists came to power in the 1980s they attempted a mass shake-up of the whole system, doing away with some of the more confusing aspects in a bid to streamline it.

However, many of the bureaucrats clung on and there is truth in the phrase you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Since democracy started, the number of public employees has actually increased not decreased.

It seems no one is safe from bureaucratic pandemonium in Spain

So prevalent is the issue that a distinct kind of professional has actually been created just to deal with it, creating another layer to the whole bureaucratic nightmare.

Gestors, as they are called, are essentially local experts, who are on hand to help you avoid the obstacles of Spain’s paper trail, sometimes known as papeleo.

And they are not just for foreigners.

While you may feel that your problems stem from being seen as a guiri, the truth of the matter is that the locals have just as much of a hard time getting things done.

It is not uncommon for a Spaniard to use a gestor for any dealings they have with the government as it seems no one is safe from bureaucratic pandemonium.

It all feeds in to an endless vicious circle of jobs created to deal with paperwork created to give the new workers something to do.

Of course if you do decide to go it alone, there are a few ways to help overcome the red tape fiasco.

‘Time’. In a word.

To navigate the bureaucratic maze you need to be prepared to walk away and return another day, be aware that everything will take longer than you think, that people will be unlikely to speak English, and that there is a chance you will be asked for every piece of paper you have in your possession.

And after all that, you just have to be prepared like the girl in the 036 film and have everything ready… including the hand held mini-stapler!

Watch it at http://www.notodofilmfest.com/#/Home/Ficha/29817/

Wendy Williams

DO YOU HAVE NEWS FOR US at Spain’s most popular English newspaper - the Olive Press? Contact us now via email: newsdesk@theolivepress.es or call 951 273 575


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    charismatic beauty, who could charm the proverbials out of the trees. Instant success…..no agro! Just to watch male officials wilt and say ‘yes’ was worth the small fortune that it cost.No tears!
    I achieved police cooperation, customs coerced, bank accounts at the drop of a hat. Keep it simple…..guapa!

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