March 17, 2020 / 7:45 PM / 2 months ago

Confined by coronavirus, Spain's self-employed fear worst is yet to come

MADRID (Reuters) - Homebound for at least the next two weeks under a state of emergency, Spain’s self-employed workers fear the economic damage coming from coronavirus will deprive them of work and customers for much longer, plunging them into debt.

FILE PHOTO: A man wearing a protective mask walks outside a hospital during the partial lockdown as part of a 15-day state of emergency following the coronavirus outbreak in Madrid, Spain March 17, 2020. REUTERS/Susana Vera

There are 3.2 million self-employed people in the country. Lacking permanent contracts, such workers have long complained of being left behind in terms of social protection.

With 11,178 coronavirus cases and 491 dead, Spain is Europe’s second worst-hit country by the epidemic after Italy.

“The uncertainty we face now as autonomous workers is enormous,” said Raquel Las Heras, who runs a lottery and betting booth in Albacete in Spain’s south-east, told Reuters on Tuesday. “After this (lockdown), what happens?”

The government on Tuesday announced a package of measures worth 200 billion euros ($220 billion) to support companies and employees, providing autonomous workers with a one-off cash injection and, along with other workers, temporarily exempting them from social security contributions.

“Autonomous workers now have a little oxygen,” said Maria Jose Landaburu, president of the UTAE, Spain’s national union for self-employed workers. “But the state must take more measures ... because the end of the tunnel is still far away.”

For 37-year-old taxi driver Nacho Castillo Jimenez, the consequences of his forced inactivity frighten him more than the disease itself.

“When we begin to work again we will find ourselves without money, indebted, behind on bills, fearful - and not spending a penny more than on the absolute necessities like food, light, water and gas,” Castillo Jimenez said.

Over 100,000 workers across Spain have been laid off due to the coronavirus, and the total number could reach 1 million, the head of one of Spain’s largest unions said on Tuesday.

Jaime Camblor, a painter-decorator from Gijon, Asturias, worries that any prolongation of the state of emergency will wreak lasting damage along the social chain as autonomous workers struggle to pay bills.

“The rent for this month, I can pay,” said Camblor, 37. “But not next month. And if we can’t pay rent then that means someone else won’t be getting monthly income.”

Reporting and writing by Clara-Laeila Laudette; additional reporting by Inti Landauro and Sonya Dowsett; Editing by Andrei Khalip, William Maclean

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