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The Spanish National Research Council's headquarters in Madrid.

The Spanish National Research Council's headquarters in Madrid.

Luis García/Wikimedia Commons

Tired of short-term contracts, Spanish postdocs sue their employer

The past few years, many postdocs at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) have obtained a permanent position in an unusual way: by suing their employer. The researchers, along with many technicians and administrative staff, have successfully asked the courts to make CSIC comply with Spanish labor law and turn their short-term contracts into indefinite employment.

But now, CSIC is pushing back with a series of controversial measures that many say punish the institutes and research groups where such cases have occurred. The new measures, detailed in an internal memo that was recently leaked to national newspaper El País, have drawn criticism from the scientific community and angered trade unions. One union, the Workers’ Commissions (CCOO), accuses CSIC of a “witch hunt” against those who exercise their employment rights and the centers and research groups that host them.

CSIC employs some 10,000 research and administrative staff in more than 120 institutes that span every discipline from mathematics to biology and the humanities. Like other research institutions in Europe, CSIC is doing away with its tradition of lifetime civil servant employment and introducing more and more short-term contracts funded by research grants and industry contracts.

But a law introduced in 2006 says that Spanish workers who have served more than 24 months in short-term contracts during the previous 30 months are entitled to an open-ended contract. A memo sent by CSIC President Emilio Lora-Tamayo to institute directors on 6 April shows that 677 workers have already successfully sued CSIC to obtain indefinite employment status; another 112 cases are still pending, and new ones keep coming.

The legal moves have been "enormously detrimental to the organization,” Lora-Tamayo wrote in his memo. CSIC has already paid €2.6 million in compensations and indemnities, he says—and that's not even counting the new salaries. What's more, the new appointments—which have caused some institutes to grow faster than others—are limiting the organization’s “room to maneuver” and “develop an adequate human resources strategy.”

That's why from now on, institutes with the highest “litigiousness levels” can only hire new short-term employees if they can demonstrate that their current staff can't do the job, the memo continues; meanwhile, institutes with fewer court cases will be given priority in the allocation of the 275 new competitive permanent positions that CSIC has just announced for 2016. Research groups with pending cases face a total freeze on short-term hiring until judges have ruled, and group leaders may be denied productivity bonuses for cases CSIC has lost. The memo, which appears to blame CSIC research centers and groups for the problem, does not lay out how they are supposed to stop employees from going to court.

Reactions were swift. “We denounce as inadequate and irresponsible a human resources strategy that seeks to segregate and punish CSIC centers for issues that have nothing to do with science and the professionalism of their staff,” CCOO said in a statement. Alicia Durán, a physics professor at the CSIC Institute of Ceramics and Glass in Madrid and a CCOO representative in CSIC's governing council, says the measures seek “to scare group leaders and workers in order to prevent future claims."

CSIC quickly tried to calm the waters. A letter circulated internally on 15 April said the organization wasn't attacking its staff and only wanted to “bring transparency about the different employment routes available at each of the CSIC institutes” and reinforce those that “best managed their short-term employees” and were left behind in getting more human resources.

It may seem reasonable that CSIC attempts to recalibrate its hiring policies, says Mario Díaz Esteban, who heads the Department of Biogeography and Global Change at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid. But the measures "seem clearly unfair from a scientific perspective," he says, "as the centers and groups that will be most penalized are those that have been most competitive in getting external funds to contract people.” What CSIC is doing now is putting new staff at centers that had the fewest legal cases rather than those where it makes most scientific sense, he says.

For individual researchers, the legal victory can have a clear downside. Because of CSIC's hiring rules, many obtain a civil servant position as specialized technicians, which often bars them from leading or participating in research projects. "It's the revenge of CSIC managers against the postdocs who dare to defend their rights,” Durán says. “The options that these workers have are to continue in precarious employment forever, to leave their job, or to secure indefinite employment but abandon their scientific career as a consequence.”