Politics of Equality at Work

Who negotiates equality? Equality plans and constitutional debates in Spain, by Miguel Martinez Lucio

In the third of our blog series for the Politics of Equality at Work project, Miguel Martinez Lucio explores the process of the formulation of Equality Plans in Spain and the role of formal worker representation in these discussions. Their construction illustrates the varying nature of the role of social dialogue in the development of the political design of equality, which contrasts with other countries like the UK.

The 2007 Organic Law on Equality between Men and Women required companies in Spain with over 50 employees to have an Equality Plan signed off by management and worker representatives. These plans, which deal with a range of human resource and employment issues, are aimed at ensuring a more concerted effort on the employer’s part to challenge gender inequalities in the workplace. The plans, incidentally, often have a spill-over effect on other groups of workers.

The timeframe for firms to agree and officially lodge these plans is laid out in the legislation and associated policy processes. Negotiations on workplace equality issues have thus become more important in the relevant employer and trade union structures. Trade unions – especially the larger and more established ones – have had specific organisational structures internally related to equality (such as on women’s rights, immigration, and LGBT issues) for some time, and these have been key to adoption of Equality Plans and relevant collective agreements.

There has been widespread discussion on the effectiveness of Equality Plans and the extent to which firms have adopted them, but they appear to be reshaping the way equality is being dealt with within workplaces and at the company level. They operate alongside the collective bargaining processes that cover broader issues and provide a focus for shaping company policy in relation to the legislation. Some autonomous regions in Spain have established joint working groups made up of representatives from trade unions and employer organisations to advise on equality plans and equality at work strategies. Many of these social dialogue and tripartite support mechanisms are still at an experimental stage, however, and much of the bureaucratic planning and development involves the management and trade union representatives of companies. Spain’s approach differs from that of the UK, where trade unions are not an integral part of the process, and their recognition and representation are limited.

Recent developments in Spain illustrate the key role of formal worker representation in this process. The Spanish Confederation of Employer Organisations (CEOE), concerned that the inability of trade union structures to respond swiftly to the requirements of the new Equality Plans was delaying progress, brought a legal challenge calling for internal structures and committees within firms to take on the process of overseeing them. Unions such as the CCOO (the Workers Commissions) and the UGT (the General Union of Workers) responded that this would generate management-led processes and undermine the constitutional voice of worker representatives in relation to equality. Worker representative elections (elecciones sindicales) take place in workplaces and companies every four years and it is these that determine which trade union or set of trade unions are to be considered the most representative (see Martínez Lucio, 2017). During 2021 and 2022 the Constitutional Tribunal of the state clarified that Equality Plans must be negotiated and developed together with the official worker representatives as determined by these elections, in order to be broadly on a par with established collective bargaining processes, already underpinned by legislation. The Constitutional Tribunal decision illustrates the fundamental problem of who it is that ‘negotiates equality’ and what structures are needed to ensure fair and legally sound approaches to it, with trade unions fearing that in the absence of a judicial decision, trade unions and works councils could have been circumvented during the development and implementation of Equality Plans. This highlights the varying nature of the role of social dialogue in the development of the political design of equality. In Spain the approach is framed by the general structures of worker representation as determined by constitutional laws, in contrast with the more flexible yet uneven, and perhaps fragmented, process that applies in the UK.