Flagging Spain tries to put paid to the two-hour siesta

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The Independent Online

Spain is trying to change its idiosyncratic working hours to fit in with the rest of Europe, and to salvage time for family and leisure.

A parliamentary committee is studying how to break the nation's habits of lunching in mid-afternoon and playing football towards bedtime. The committee will report by the summer, but the Minister of Public Affairs, Jordi Sevilla, will present interim findings to parliament tomorrow.

At present, Europeans head for lunch as Spaniards are settling into their morning. Europe returns to work at 2pm, while Spain takes a two-hour lunch at 3pm. At 5pm, when Europeans think of knocking off, Spain works on for up to four hours. Europeans are mostly asleep when Spaniards dine.

This timetable is out of synch with the EU and pan-European business. Matters are made worse by Spain's widespread "presenteeism": 45 per cent of Spaniards work overtime, half of them without extra pay.

This is producing an exhausted, stressed and overworked nation, sociologists say, not to mention an increase in family breakdown and failures at school.

The origins of Spain's long day lie in the hard years after the civil war. Men often held two poorly-paid jobs - one in the morning, one in the afternoon - while their wives looked after the home, made lunch (after which the breadwinner would lie down) and took the children to and from school.

Today, with both parents working, the timetable is unmanageable for couples with school-age children, unless they have grandparents or nannies.

Trade unions believe the long day benefits bosses at the expense of employees. The Workers' Commissions union federation said: "Employers prolong hours through bad organisation, and to avoid hiring extra staff. It's crushing workers' lives, especially women."

Previous efforts to shorten the day by abolishing the siesta failed in the 1980s. Life is more frenetic now. But ask most Spaniards if they'd rather lunch for an hour at 1pm, and go to bed before midnight, and they'll laugh in your face.