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Home » ‘If I want a shower, I boil a kettle’: Spain strife over soaring bills

‘If I want a shower, I boil a kettle’: Spain strife over soaring bills

by Staff
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Last winter, father-of-two Miguel turned off his electric boiler at his home near Madrid and began putting on extra layers to keep warm.

Rising energy prices and inflation have accelerated a backward slide that the 61-year-old says began a decade ago when his pay was cut.

“If I want a shower, I boil the kettle and shower like that,” Miguel told Euronews. “In summer it’s no problem and to be honest I’ve got used to it in winter, too. As for the heating, I live in a flat, so I get the benefit of the heat from the apartments below.”

He also walks two kilometres to the nearest supermarket and carries home his weekly shop, which is dominated by own-brand products. 

“I cook a big stew and it lasts me,” added the journalist. This is how I’ve been making ends meet up to now. I don’t know what’s around the corner.”

Miguel is not alone. Many across the country are having to tighten their belts as already rising energy costs have been exasperated by the war in Ukraine and Russia’s decision to reduce gas supplies to Europe. 

In the six years to 2020, the average household paid €780 a year for electricity. But that’s risen to an annual bill of €1,371, according to the Spanish consumer organisation OCU, with a rise of 65.8% in energy prices since last August alone. 

That’s having a knock-on effect on food prices. OCU says the average food shop is 15.2% more than in August 2021. 

“We did a study of 280 food products in 1,100 supermarkets and found 94% of products have risen in price, which shows how far-reaching the crisis is,” said Enrique García, a spokesman for OCU.

As with Miguel, Orlando, a bass guitarist who lives 50 kilometres from Madrid, also tries to make large quantities of food that will last him.

“I’ve learned to cook and that has made a big difference,” he said. “I make a great big pot of beans and chillies that I grow myself and that does me for a few days.”

Orlando grows a lot of his own vegetables and has installed solar power that can store in batteries for his private use, a growing trend, according to Solar Union (UNEF) director, José Donoso. He says there has been a rise of more than 50% in sales of such batteries to individual homes in the past year.

Others, such as mother-of-one Anabel, are locked into a regulated tariff for their electricity to benefit from the social discount rate, which, despite the Iberian exception that allows for the decoupling of the Spanish and Portuguese electricity bill from the price of gas, is proving more than a curse than a blessing.

“The cost of gas and electricity is crazy even though I’m meant to have this social discount rate,” she told Euronews. “It’s because I’m forced to be on the regulated tariff which keeps going up! Everything is going up! The weekly shop is now a third more expensive and then there’s petrol. I used to pay €50 to fill up. That’s now €80.”

Anabel works in various jobs — from administration to writing — and is known in Spain as a “mil eurista”, someone who earns €1,000 a month. 

She says on top of everything, she is going to have to invest in a new car as hers will no longer be allowed within the city limits after January, according to the emission restrictions. 

“And all this working on temporary contracts with an unstable income!”

The government has attempted to help by cutting VAT on gas and electricity to 5%. It has also introduced a price cap on gas and electricity prices.

Katty, a Venezuelan cleaner, is unsure about how the coming months are going to pan out. She says “everything is going up and up, but I get paid the same”.

The 50-year-old has moved her family into a small apartment in Madrid together with another family to help cover costs. 

This, along with resorting to food banks, is how many people working in low-paid jobs are getting by.

“Already 900,000 families can’t make it to the end of the month,” said Carmela del Moral, from Save the Children, adding that Spain has one of the highest child poverty rates in Europe with 28.8% of youngsters living under the poverty line, a figure the crisis will exacerbate further. 

“Even with government subventions and the rise in the ‘minimal vital income’ it is going to get much worse,” she said.

The worse it gets, the bigger the demand at the country’s many food banks. 

Last year, 1,353,276 people received food parcels or meals across Spain, according to the national food banks association, FESBAL. 

But while demand is on the rise this year, it’s getting harder to meet it.

In a press release, the president of the national food bank FESBAL, Pedro Miguel Llorca, said “the rising cost of food, among other things, has had repercussions on the spending power of Spanish families and has meant a fall in the number of donations made to food banks linked to FESBAL”.

The struggle, of course, is not only confined to low-wage earners and those in precarious employment. Small and medium-sized businesses, which account for almost 60% of Spain’s enterprise, are also on the frontline. 

“There are many smaller companies that, post-COVID, have no cushion left to absorb this new blow,” said Francisco Vidal, director of the economy at the Confederation of Small and Medium-sized companies (CEPYME). 

“At the start of the year, these companies were making 20% less than before the pandemic. Now we have a brutal hike in costs that can’t be passed onto the consumer in their entirety, or the product simply won’t be bought.”

Manuel, 70, the owner of the Dos Hermanos bar in the rundown Madrid neighbourhood of El Pozo, works himself into an incandescent rage as he lists all the price hikes he’s contending with. 

“Don’t tell me we got our eggs from Ukraine, too? I’m paying double for them. God knows why,” he bellows while serving his customers a complimentary slice of Spanish omelette with their drink. 

“And next month I’ll be paying more than €1,000 for my gas and electricity, not to mention all the tax rises the government has hit us with!”

But Manuel is not about to pull down his shutters. Nor is he expecting his struggling clientele to bear the brunt of his economic woes – a beer here still costs €1.40. 

“We’re used to living amidst crisis,” explains Vidal. “We’ve had 10 very complicated years and so companies are more adjusted to living in precarious conditions.”

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