Scorching Sun, Deadly Work: A Look Into Spain’s Construction Industry
With no national laws regulating temperature exposure in outdoor activity, Spanish construction workers endure dangerous conditions amidst rising temperatures and recurrent heat waves. They face risk of illness, injury, and even death.
By Sofía Álvarez Jurado, Richard Godin, Mariana Abreu, Svetlana Lazareva, Jeanne Casez
Translation into French by Richard Godin and Camille Auchère
On July 12, 2017 Rafael Luque, 54, started work at 7.30 a.m. It was a good day for the Spanish construction worker: he would soon be leaving Seville with his wife and children for a much-deserved vacation.
Under a suffocating 41ºC, Luque and his life-long — mostly middle-aged — colleagues, rushed to fix a remote road on the outskirts of the city. Surrounded by only dried-out grass, they worked from sunrise to sundown, stopping only to find shade and water at a roadside bar, around 6 p.m.
Had it been another day, he would have joined his family for dinner. But Luque never made it home on July 12, 2017. And his much-anticipated family holidays became a bittersweet memory of what could’ve been. At around 8 pm, having worked for thirteen hours, Luque collapsed on the freshly set blazing concrete he had spent the day laying down.
“He died in my arms,” Ricardo (who asked his real name be kept out of the story), a long-time friend of Luque’s, said. “A driver stopped by and asked me if I’d tried to perform CPR, but…. I don’t know how to do that. I didn’t know. We were all alone.”
Seville (Southern Spain) was on code red alert for extreme temperatures that day, but this did not stop the construction company Construcciones Maygar S.L, from sending its workers to patch up the A406 road’s stretch, that connects the villages of Morón de la Frontera and El Saucejo.
Juan Antonio Castro, regional Secretary of the trade union Unión General de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras (UGT), arrived at the scene after receiving a call from one of the workers. The crew, he claimed, had been exposed to direct sunlight for over thirteen hours, without any access to fresh water nor shade.
“They were all overwhelmed with guilt,” Castro from UGT said, “asking themselves if there was something else they could have done.” But the project manager didn’t seem quite as bothered. According to the unionist, he wouldn’t stop yelling at the crew, saying things like “you need to get the work done! Hell, this needs to be finished!”
Castro believes Maygar violated Spanish labor law in several ways that day. First, there was no compliance with the established working schedule, which went from 7.30 a.m to 2.30 p.m. Then, the company failed to supply the “sufficient, fresh water” it was legally obliged to provide its workers, along with some shade and shelter.
At the time of publication, Maygar had not replied to the request for comment.
“There was not a single oak tree under which they could hide from the sun, and not once did the project manager think about getting his employees some water,” Castro recalled. “That’s not the way things work. You can’t just throw your team into risky projects, bypass all sorts of security guidelines, and hope for the best. These things have to be studied and secured from the beginning.”
Dehydration and exposure weren’t the only culprits of Luque’s collapse. For hours, the Spanish worker had been manipulating materials that are both extremely sensitive to heat, and likely to radiate exceedingly high temperatures.
“Asphalt concrete is poured down at 160ºC-180ºC, and it also releases all sorts of toxic gas,” Ricardo explained, stressing that no protective gear was provided to the crew by the company.
“Add humidity to the mix, and it becomes absolutely unbearable to be outside,” Castro added. When levels of moisture in the air are high, sweat doesn’t evaporate as easily, making it harder for the body to cool off. In simpler terms, people boil from the inside out.
“After we came back from our break, Rafael started acting erratically: sitting on the ground, playing around with pebbles — sort of like a child would,” José recalled. “We went to get him some water, but when we got back he was babbling… he couldn’t even speak anymore.”
Carlos Aristu Ollero, Secretary General of the trade union Comisiones Obreras (CC.OO.) of Seville, got to the scene after Luque’s passing. He said that Maygar had been forcing the crew to work outside of the summer schedule for several weeks – a statement backed by a former Maygar worker, who chose to remain anonymous: “It’s an abusive company, and it breaches many laws. The working days are twelve, thirteen, sometimes even fourteen hours long.”
Maygar didn’t grant its workers a single day of mourning. After the funeral, they were asked to get right back to work. “But we refused — Ricardo said, his gaze full of dignity and sentiment — we said enough’s enough.”
“What happened showed complete disregard towards the victim, both by the construction manager in charge and by the company itself,” said Castro from UGT.
Maygar: Over Three Decades of Abusive Practices
When Maygar was founded in 1986, it was but a small landscaping business in the town of Los Corrales (Seville). Little by little, the company started to grow, relying on the labor force of local workers that kept pouring in from the nearby villages.
“In an industry like construction, these family companies are the only option for workers who don’t want to leave their families and travel thousands of kilometers every week… they’re not awarded the privilege of choosing,” a former Maygar manager, who wished to remain anonymous, said.
However, following Luque’s death and the company’s silence, several of Maygar’s workers went on strike on November 19th, 2019, led by the Confederación Nacional de Trabajo (CNT). “We couldn’t take the abusive working schedules that the company was forcing upon us anymore,” Ricardo said.
Maygar never followed-up on any of the workers’ claims, and eventually, the strike was called off. “We were risking too much. People have to eat, you know?” Juanma Álvarez from CNT explained.
The lack of compromise in the company’s thirty-year-old history is rooted in its refusal to let workers unionize. According to Aristu from CC.OO, Maygar recurrently prevented workers from organizing elections in the past. A claim supported by the UGT union.
With no claim to their rights, workers recurred to other strategies. They started denouncing the abusive situations they had witnessed in the form of complaints, which were then immediately sent to the Spanish Labor Inspectorate or other relevant authorities.
Significant problems in the area of occupational risk were reported in these complaints, according to Castro. “Maygar is a genuinely bad company in terms of risk prevention,” he said.
“At this point, [abuse] it’s practically engraved in the company’s DNA,” Álvarez from CNT added. As for Ricardo, who has been working for Maygar since 2004, he claimed the company never actually respected the legally binding working schedule.
The yearly agreement, collectively bargained between trade unions and employer organizations to establish the schedule, was straightforward: working day was seven hours a day, Monday to Friday, from 7:30 a.m to 2:30 p.m. “But in fact, we tend to work the most hours during the summer,” Ricardo said. “They told us: with asphalt concrete, the warmer the better!”
On paper, Maygar is obliged to assign a project manager to supervise each construction site. The manager in charge on the day that Luque died, Juan Pablo R.M., is now to stand trial in 2025. Next to him on the accused bench will seat Juan Peral Rengel, Maygar’s company administrator, Juan Felipe Criado, the technical director, and Francisco Javier F.d.L, the person who was responsible for risk prevention.
For Castro (UGT), this is just another way for the company to avoid accountability: “Maygar doesn’t have a prevention department, so they need a scapegoat. And it’s obviously going to be the manager, who didn’t provide water or shelter.”
But according to Castro, Luque’s story is a part of a larger problem, rooted in the skeleton of the company’s policy. “Management has no consideration for the workers,” he said, “the only thing they care about is their performance ratings.”
When it comes to contracts, Ricardo believes he is one of the “lucky ones” as of today. He’s hired long-term, which ultimately gave him a minimum job security. But his case is rare. “The majority of the workers have to settle for contracts that are only valid for the duration of a specific project — a practice which is illegal if the duration of the contracts exceeds three years,” he explained. “But actually, in many cases, they’ve just been renewing those short-term contracts for over 10 years.”
In a statement from 2017, the Communications Secretary of UGT Seville, María Iglesias, declared that more than 72% of Maygar contracts could be considered “precarious.” This means they put the workers who signed them in an extremely vulnerable position, which later prevented them from denouncing the abusive situations they were subjected to.
“If you accept the working conditions, it’s all good. If you don’t, if you complain, that’s it, you’re done. And if you report them, you won’t ever come back to work with them,” Castro (UGT) said.
The alleged abuse also extended to the employee’s salaries. “Workers are paid eight or nine euros for extra hours, while they should be paid around twenty according to the construction sector fees,” said Álvarez from CNT. The union member also claimed Maygar tricked public administrators and regulators by issuing fraudulent invoices. Instead of declaring the true value of underpaid hours, they inflated the numbers up to thirty euros per hour.
These deceiving practices were particularly striking in the case of immigrant workers hired by Maygar. According to Iglesias (UGT), they were sometimes paid as little as 3.50 euros per hour, a claim backed by Castro from UGT.
Understaffed Labor Inspectorate Struggles to Keep Companies in Check
In Spain, the official body in charge of controlling compliance with national labor legislation is the Labor and Social Security Inspectorate (ITSS). Overall, trade unions recognize that ITSS handles its responsibilities efficiently by making an effort to quickly respond to complaints and imposing considerable financial fines on companies that violate labor laws.
“The Labor Inspectorate is doing great work and I am grateful,” Castro (UGT) said. “They assign two inspectors or sub-inspectors to monitor summer working days, forcing companies to comply with defined schedules.”
But by all accounts, the ITSS is seriously understaffed, which critically affects its ability to carry out all the necessary inspections. Marcial Benítez, a labor inspector and member of the Progessist Union of Labor Inspectors (UPIT), explained that the Spanish system opts for a so-called ‘generalist approach’ to labor inspection.
Under this policy, the ITSS is in charge of supervising multiple areas, labor conditions, such as workplace risk prevention, social security, and control over foreign workers. This makes the workload all the more overwhelming for the institution, which plainly does not possess enough resources to respond to all obligations.
“It’s an ancient battle,” Benítez said. “At this point, we’re just fighting for the necessary means to successfully carry out our missions.”
According to the International Labor Organization database, in Spain there were 1.1 labor inspectors for every ten thousand employees as of 2021 – with each inspector carrying out just a little under 106 inspections yearly. This places Spain in a precarious situation, compared to other EU countries. In Ireland, the ratio was 84 assessments per inspector as of 2021, whereas Norwegian inspectors only have to conduct just under 25 every year.
Aristu from CC.OO. also believed that lack of resources played a major role in the failure to address labor violations. While there are not enough inspections being carried out, he pointed out that there weren’t enough Social Courts to oversee the legal procedures. These specialized courts are the only ones fit to judge labor and social security litigations.
Rafael Luque’s Death “Shows a System Failure”
Luque’s death unveiled a series of structural deficiencies at a national and regional level. Despite Maygar’s well-documented history of abuse, regional authorities still hired the company to carry out the project that cost Luque his life.
When this happened, Jesús Huertas was the head of the regional infrastructure authority within the Junta de Andalucía.
“Each time a worker dies in the workplace it shows a system failure,” he said. According to Huertas, during his mandate at the Junta, Luque was the only worker who died in the workplace in the construction sector. But he agreed that “no one should ever work at the expense of their own life.”
In a phone call, he said that, despite risk prevention measures being adequate, they “are never enough.” He insisted the regional authority complied with all legal procedures regarding occupational risks and stressed that the Junta de Andalucía is not among the accused during the 2025 trial.
The relationship between the Junta de Andalucía and Maygar, however, has been thriving since the early 2000s. Contracts between the two entities were signed on a regular basis.
As a well-established company in the region, Maygar capitalized on its strong portfolio of public customers. “We’re talking about public administrations, like municipalities, provincial councils and, overall, the regional government – the Junta”, Álvarez from CNT explained.
On July 14, 2014, following a tender, the regional infrastructure authority picked Maygar out of a number of competitors to maintain secondary roads in Seville. The project was valued at more than 1.5 million euros and resulted in a collaboration of nearly four years, up until 2018, when the Junta decided to give the contract to another company.
“My priority at that moment was to make sure that the contract had the adequate occupational safety prevention instruments, that they were approved, and that a safety coordinator was appointed. And that was the case,” Huertas said.
The former head of the regional infrastructure authority denied being aware of any precariousness in the construction industry. “If someone had brought it up with me, I would have been the first to bring it [whichever company] to the attention of the Labor Inspectorate,” Huertas said. “But that never happened.” During the summer of 2017, no occupational risk manager visited the construction site, by accounts of the workers present.
Contracts between the Junta and Maygar are still being signed today, despite Rafael Luque’s passing, and the upcoming trial in 2025. The latest bilateral agreement was signed in November 2022.
At the time of publication, the regional infrastructure board of the Junta de Andalucia did not respond to the request for comment.
The issue was raised during a regional parliament hearing. In 2019, Ismael Sánchez Castillo, member of the left-wing party Izquierda Unida (United Left), tried to question the Junta about its ongoing collaboration with Maygar. All the Junta had to say in response to the workers’ rights violations allegations was that it was making sure all official procedures were being respected.
For Castro (UGT), there is an undeniable relation between the two entities: “Why does the Junta continue to work with Maygar? Because the law does not prohibit it. It’s some political back-scratching… That’s what it is.”
Because the Junta is a regional authority, the contracts it signs are financed with public money – not only from the taxpayers of Andalusia, but more generally from Spain. Several contracts managed by Maygar have also been co-financed with European funds. More specifically, with the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), which has subsidized up to 80% of the company’s worksites.
In 2018, a year after Luque’s death, the Junta signed twelve contracts with Maygar totaling over 6 million euros, effectively making the company the fourth largest contractor in the region, behind the emergency service SAMU, KPMG and the IT company Oracle Iberica SRL.
That same year, the Andalusian Chamber of Accounts arbitrarily checked the compliance of four of Maygar’s contracts. While they seemed to be in order, one common trend emerged: all construction projects were labeled “urgent”.
The urgent status, however, is typically used for situations presenting a risk to road safety (a pothole, a tree fallen on the road, etc.) or in the event of a natural disaster. Castro (UGT) believes that the Junta mostly distributed the “urgent” tag without valid justification.
This was also the case for the road repair that took Luque’s life. On September 1st, contenders of the 72nd Spanish Cycling Race were meant to transit that same road section, which led the company to consider the process as “urgent”.
“In every construction site, there is a construction manager in charge of ensuring that the work is carried out within the contract framework,” Huertas explained. “Then there is the Health and Safety Coordinator, who is in charge of supervising the construction plan.”
“Maygar doesn’t have its own risk management team, so they need to hire an external unit to do it for it instead,” said Castro (UGT). As a result, in 2015, the Junta de Andalucía hired another company, Ingeniería Atecsur S.L., to supervise health and safety coordination for ongoing projects in the regional road network.
In this case, the supervision of the contract was done by the officers of the Junta (Seville’s delegation), and the coordination of the safety and security, by Atecsur.
According to elDiario.es, the head of the risk management team from Atecsur visited the construction site for the last time on October 25, 2016, nine months before Luque’s death. According to both union members and Maygar workers, Atecsur should also be held accountable, but the company has not been indicted, and will therefore not be tried in 2025.
A Legal No Man’s Land
The Spanish government is yet to legislate on occupational risks regarding heat stress. Had it already done so, it would have given both a warning to the companies and a shield to trade unions for denouncing the abusive situations.
But as of today, barely any national laws force companies to protect their employees from the outdoor heat. The Law 31/95 for Risk Prevention in the workplace, adopted in 1995 to guarantee the “safety” and “health” of Spanish workers, doesn’t specifically mention extreme temperatures. Even if the Royal Decree from 1997 establishing a “minimum safety and health provisions in the workplace” must be ensured, it fails to establish a temperature threshold over which Spanish workers should not work both in and outdoors.
Spain is home to some of the warmest regions in Europe, of which Andalusia is a prime example. As the mercury rises and taunting extreme temperatures become all the more frequent, the failure to regulate this legal gray area of labor law has started to cost human lives.
According to Spain’s Labor Ministry, the construction sector is particularly affected by heat-related incidents. Between 2010 and 2021, 211 work accidents involving heat strokes were accounted for, as well as 102 in agriculture and 97 in manufacturing. Trade unions claimed these figures were most likely an underestimation. Official data for 2022 is yet to be published, but according to Aida Suárez from CC.OO, three construction workers died of heat stress in Spain last summer.
In 2019, the death of Eleazar Blandon, a Nicaraguan worker who died of heatstroke while working on a watermelon plantation in Murcia, struck Spanish public opinion. Following the event, Spain’s Minister of Labor Yolandia Díaz introduced a plan to update labor inspection in 2021, which explicitly referred to heat stroke for the first time.
The country also witnessed the death of José Antonio González, a street sweeper hired by the Madrid City Council, in July 2022. He was working at 5 p.m., at 42ºC, in direct sunlight and wearing a polyester uniform. Three weeks before his death, the Labor Inspectorate sent a letter to Urbaser, the company González was working for, to remind them of the obligation to protect workers from extreme heat.
But as long as heat-related risks are not regulated by the State, the safety of construction workers relies heavily on the goodwill of the company who hired them, as the Labor Inspectorate is unable to supervise each of them.
“For me, they’re all guilty,” Ricardo said. As he awaits trial, the worker, who is still employed by Maygar, hopes that “justice will persevere”, and that the risks construction workers are exposed to will be brought to light. “It could have been me. It could have been any of us.”
This investigation wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the Spanish trade unions Comisiones Obreras (CC.OO.), Unión General de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras (UGT), Confederación Nacional de Trabajo (CNT) and Unión Progresista de Inspectoras e Inspectores de Trabajo y Seguridad Social (UPIT). We would like to thank Carlos Aristu Ollero, Aida Suárez, Javier Morales, Pedro Morán, Juan Blázquez, Alberto Franco, Javier García, Jorge García, Juan Antonio Castro, Juanma Álvarez and Marcial Benítez for their time and clarifications. And, especially, the workers who shared their experiences with us.