“Our businesses can no longer afford the inactivity of ‘aqueducts.’ The loss of work activity must be kept to a bare minimum,” asserts Jesús Terciado, vice-president of the employers’ association CEOE and president of the Spanish Small Business Confederation (Cepyme). He is referring to a popular Spanish habit: when a holiday falls in the middle of the week – such as yesterday’s October 12 holiday or the upcoming December 6 and 8 holidays – some workers take off all the days in between it and the weekend to create a mini-vacation.

A three- or four-day weekend is usually referred to in Spain as a puente (a bridge, because the worker lays a symbolic bridge over the working day to connect the vacation days). When it is even longer, the concept is humorously stretched to acueducto, or aqueduct.

Terciado feels it is necessary to increase productivity in Spain by readjusting the work calendar, more specifically by doing what Britain does: making most holidays fall on a Monday. But would this work? Would everyone win out? Workers and their representatives are not so sure.

Terciado argues that Spain’s extended weekends have a “disproportionate cost” on production because of the need to stop and restart the machinery; they also create an organizational problem for businesses operating outside their own region, as their holidays may not coincide with those of their clients from other parts of the country. Terciado believes that an excessive use of ‘puentes’ and ‘acueductos’ can break market unity when companies have their headquarters or providers in other towns or regions.

“Most companies cannot let their entire staff go off for four or five days, so only 30 percent of them end up enjoying long vacations such as the Constitution Day holiday [which falls in the week of December 6]. This means that many workers spend half the week working half-heartedly, and there is even a peak in absenteeism from work,” says María Bastida, who holds a doctorate in business administration from Santiago de Compostela University.

The employers’ association recently drafted a study called Report on the Rationalization of the Holiday Calendar, which the media has had access to, but which the CEOE says is merely an internal working document. The text praises the benefits of moving most holidays to Mondays or Fridays.

“This is not about eliminating ‘red calendar days’ [holidays] but simply distributing them in a more logical manner,” argues Alejandro Couceiro, secretary general of the Madrid Business Confederation (CEIM).

The proposed reconfiguration would mean that instead of five aqueducts, there would be over 10 three-day weekends. The CEOE is proposing that out of the 14 official holidays, five dates remain fixed next year: New Year’s Day (January 1), Good Friday (April 6), Hispanidad Day (October 12), Constitution Day (December 6) and Christmas Day (December 25). On the other hand, Labor Day (May 1) would fall on the first Monday of the month, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (August 15) would be moved to the third Monday in August and All Saints’ Day (November 1) would be transferred to the second Monday in November.

The remainder – three regional and two local holidays – would be left up to the respective authorities, with the recommendation of moving holidays that fall on Sundays to the following Monday, as is currently the practice.

“This idea is based on similar notions that have been applied for many years in Britain and the United States, where studies show that Monday is the least productive day of the week, followed by Friday afternoon,” says Roberto Rodríguez, director of the business consultancy PFS.

Although the measure has not yet been approved by the board of CEOE, it has already raised some people’s hackles.

“Ending the puentes will not contribute much to productivity nor to the rationalization of schedules, since by reducing workers’ rest time they could be more tired or lacking motivation during their ordinary working day. Regardless of whether this is just a redistribution of free days, the fact remains that three days in a row is not the same as a week,” says Beatriz Cordero, director of labor and institutional relations at Randstad, a human resources company. “Businesses need to understand that it’s important to invest in good agenda management and in reconciling work and family life.”

The employers’ association defends the need for unpopular measures to overcome the economic crisis, but not everyone shares this strategy.

Eugenio M. Recio, an honorary professor at the economics department of Esade business school, does not support this point of view. “It is good to distinguish between personal productivity and national productivity,” he says. “Each worker’s personal productivity will drop if this extra motivation is reduced. The only solution for bringing Spanish productivity up to speed with Europe’s would be to extend the working day, or at least to modify working methods. That could increase the volume of what’s being produced and then you could argue that competitiveness has increased. Everything else is just papering over the cracks.”

Jesús Terciado, of Cepyme, states that his organization “found no strong opposition from either workers or their representatives” against its proposal. Yet the secretary for union action at the labor union UGT, Toni Ferrer, accuses the employers’ association of failing to take into account the consequences of eliminating acueductos on the tourism sector.

“Heavy industry might benefit from it, but you have to think of the collateral damage. The tourism sector is crucial to the Spanish economy, and hotels, travel agencies, trains and buses would be left without their only peak times outside of the vacation season,” says Ferrer.

Yet the hospitality sector questions this premise. “It’s not so clear that this would hurt us. It’s true that we make a higher turnover on holidays than on weekdays, but the crisis has reduced the number of overnight stays, and it’s easier for some families to decide to go out for a long weekend when they only have to pay for two hotel nights,” explains José Luis Guerra, of the Spanish Hostelry Federation (FEHR). “We would rather sacrifice two acueductos if that would guarantee more short holidays. You have to see things from another perspective,” he says optimistically.

Ignacio Buqueras, president of the National Commission for the Rationalization of Spanish Schedules (ARHOE), thinks along the same lines: “A reorganization of the work calendar will prevent holidays from accumulating around a few specific months, and will help workers space out their rest days. This is the first initiative I see that aims to optimize time instead of favoring excessive demands for the pursuit of excellence.”

Spain is among the EU countries with the longest working day. According to a 2009 study by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Spaniards put in more hours than workers in France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Sweden and Ireland, and fewer than those in Britain and Austria. Yet the 2006 EuroIndex by IESE-Adecco shows that European countries with the shortest working hours – The Netherlands, Germany and Belgium – have greater work productivity.

“It is unclear whether longer working days necessarily result in greater productivity, yet that is the prevailing model,” says César Rodríguez, professor of Foundations of Economic Analysis at Oviedo University. “Our long days sometimes mean more work interruptions,” adds Javier Blasco, director of Adecco’s legal department.

Recio, of Esade, thinks the only alternative is a change in employer mentality. “Businesses do not make great efforts to create an environment that is favorable to work and makes workers identify more with the company. This is reflected in the ease with which people are laid off, or the preference for temporary workers in order to be able to eliminate personnel when there is an excess of capacity, whereas in Germany layoffs are the last resort.”

Although the CEOE proposal made the news without the report authors meaning it to, experts consulted by this newspapers seemed to be expecting just such a move, given the country’s economic situation. Specialists feel that rationalizing holidays could have beneficial effects, at least for the time being. But worker representatives see it as yet another attack on the rights that workers have earned over decades of struggle. And they note that in Spain, putting in face time at work is still erroneously considered a synonym of productivity.