The Spanish National Court ruled on Tuesday that cigarette breaks, coffee breaks, and breakfast breaks are not counted among paid working hours, dismissing a lawsuit filed by the Trade Unions Confederation against energy company Galp.
The lawsuit was the result of changes to Spanish law last May, which require companies to track employees’ entrance and departure from the workplace. Those changes, meant to address the issue of labor fraud unpaid overtime—three million hours of overtime went unpaid last year, according to figures from the Spanish Statistical Office—also offered employers the option to discount coffee and smoke breaks from the official working day. Secretary of state for labour Yolanda Valdeolivas suggested at the time that a distinction should be created between effective working hours and “non-effective, unpaid time”: “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,” she said.
That suggestion has now played out in the recent lawsuit. As part of monitoring workers’ coming and going, Galp required them to report their reasons for entering or exiting the building during working hours, and deducted coffee breaks, cigarette breaks, and breakfast breaks from their recorded working hours. Prior to the monitoring, such breaks were generally allowed to pass by what the court described as “a policy of business confidence”. However, the court pointed out that the company has the discretion to unilaterally decide what are considered work and non-work hours.
While Galp may have been fully within its rights to discount coffee and cigarette breaks, the union is adamant that the company was not right to do so. Union lawyers have called the ruling reprehensible and claimed that it gives excessive power to the employer, and plan to appeal to the High Court.
Spanish workers put in some of the longest hours in Europe: OECD statistics indicate that companies in Spain expect their employees to work several hundred hours more a year than their counterparts in many other European countries. On the other hand, the work culture has traditionally valued break times and rest times.