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Spanish employers may no longer pay for coffee and smoking breaks

Many Spaniards’ late-morning ritual of a coffee and chat with colleagues in a bar is under threat from new workplace regulations that allow employers not to pay for such breaks.

Spain’s Socialist party government has introduced a law obliging all companies to register their employees’ entry and exit times in a bid to prevent worker exploitation through unpaid overtime.

But the guidelines handed out to companies this week also included an option for employers to stop counting coffee and snack breaks or downtime for smokers as part of the official working day, as they have been up to now.

Unions broadly welcomed the move to return to factory-style clocking in and out at the workplace to cut down on an estimated 2.6 million hours in unpaid overtime inflicted on Spanish workers every week. However, future negotiations between employers and workers’ representatives are likely to include the issue of how much time is actually spent on the job.

“Two hours a day are given over to various breaks: lunch, a personal phone call, stretching one’s legs, nipping out to smoke a cigarette or have a coffee,” said Spain’s secretary of state for labour, Yolanda Valdeolivas, at a recent meeting with company representatives.

Ms Valdeolivas floated the idea of estimating the time spent on breaks and creating a distinction between effective working hours and “non-effective, unpaid time”.

The government’s guidelines do make a distinction between obligatory breaks, for example such as those that must be taken by drivers after a certain number of hours at the wheel, and those that are customary for meals or voluntary for smokers. But it could be seen as unfair to roll all of these breaks together and create an average amount of downtime that, for example, affects smokers and non-smokers alike.

“Strictly speaking, breaks for coffee or food and even sending a personal WhatsApp message should be registered as such,” Lara Vivas, a lawyer for the firm Cuatrecasas, told the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia.

“Depending on the control system deployed, when someone goes out to smoke or have a coffee that break in the day’s work can be registered.”

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