The AVE to Mecca, the high-speed line operated by Renfe in Saudi Arabia, suspended operations for more than a year due to the coronavirus. It was unemployed from March 15, 2020 to March 31, 2021, when service was resumed. The consequences are economic, due to the money that has stopped coming in, after the problems of the Spanish consortium that operates the infrastructure, which even threatened to withdraw its staff due to the accumulated defaults of its client, the Saudi state railway company. But there are also labor effects. Renfe’s workforce in the Saudi project decreased by 170 people and the worst part was taken by women, who went from being more than one hundred to just twenty. The Spanish operator did without 81% of its female workforce, compared to 25% of layoffs it made among the male.
This is clear from the memory of the public company, dependent on the Ministry of Transport and published during the month of August. Renfe breaks down the composition of its workforce by sex, age, professional category, area of activity, type of contract and region: Spain, divided into autonomous communities, and Saudi Arabia and Texas, which added 277 employees in 2020 and are grouped under the same epigraph.
In Texas, where Renfe is part of a private consortium to develop the high speed between Dallas and Houston, there are only seven employees: six men and one woman, according to data provided to this newspaper. That means that in Saudi Arabia there are 270 workers, compared to 440 (excluding the seven in Texas) that were in 2019.
The gender composition of the workforce was already uneven at that time, with 340 men and 107 women. But it had improved since the beginning of the project, when Renfe itself highlighted that among the employees there was only one woman: Pilar Cutanda, the CFO, who in an interview on the corporate blog spoke of the “anecdotes” of living in Saudi Arabia, such as the obligation to cover the whole body and the difficulties of driving alone.
In 2018, it hired 77 women on a temporary basis. In July of that year, the Saudi law that allowed women to drive came into force – until then, it was the only country where it was prohibited – one of the reasons that had driven the incorporation of women into work in recent years. Saudi Arabia has been one of the countries with the lowest female participation in the labor market for decades, but between 2018 and 2020 the rate increased considerably, from 20% to 33% according to the American NGO Brookings.
However, in the year of the coronavirus, Renfe fired or did not renew 84 men (25% of the total) and 86 women (81%). To questions from elDiario.es, the company only clarifies that “the decrease in temporary employment is motivated by the pandemic and decreases in both men and women.” They do not give information on whether female employment has recovered or not.
According to the annual report, Renfe has never had a permanent woman in Saudi Arabia (although Cutanda continues as financial director). According to sources familiar with the staff, among the fixed there is a majority of Spanish expatriates and around 15 Saudis. Temporary employees are mainly Saudis and work as train drivers and commercial personnel, in ticket sales and customer service in trains and stations.
These same sources indicate that there are no female drivers on the AVE to Mecca. Thus, with the service closed, the company dispensed with the commercial area and reduced female employment, leaving the workforce with the following composition.
In Spain, Renfe made neither layoffs nor ERTE during the pandemic. He did have a conflict with outsourced logistics and services workers on board. The contract, awarded to Ferrovial and for about 400 million euros for five years, ended during the lockdown. Ferrovial wanted to do an ERE, but after social pressure Renfe extended this contract and tendered a new one, which was taken by the same company. “We are all subrogated and we have not had layoffs”, clarifies one of the workers of this subcontractor.
“Promote gender diversity”
Renfe, also in Spain, is a very masculine company. At the end of 2020 it had 14,416 workers, of which only 15.6% are women. Representation is even smaller in the Driving and Workshops groups and is only close to parity in the Management department. The average salary gap is 2.2% but it shoots up to 10% in the Management category. Among the reasons he uses to justify himself is seniority, which is higher among men, and the few women who work in “direct labor positions”, who are better paid for the type of working day, travel and productivity bonuses.
The company has among its objectives “to reduce the average age of the workforce” and “to increase female representation”. In the last four years, the Spanish workforce has increased the number of working women and the number of men decreased. This is due to the high number of retirements and “voluntary redundancies”, an early retirement program to which men sign up much more. Since 2019, 1,329 men and only 32 women have “voluntarily disengaged”.
The AVE accounts to Mecca
The Haramain line was once sold as an emblem of Spanish engineering abroad, but from the beginning it has been marked by delays and cost overruns. Twelve Spanish companies grouped in a consortium along with two other Saudi companies were commissioned: three public (Renfe, Adif and Ineco) and nine private (Talgo, Copasa, OHL, Copsa, Dimetronic, Indra, Consultrans and Imathia and Inabesa, from Abengoa) . The emeritus king played a key role in the award. The Swiss prosecutor’s office suspects, since an investigation in 2018, that Juan Carlos I charged a millionaire commission for facilitating this contract.
The demand for the high-speed line was until 2019 “significantly lower than estimated”, which translated into lower revenues than expected. A report commissioned by the consortium then pointed to the “narrow margin” that the Haramain operation represents for Renfe. In 2020, revenues fell to 30 million, compared to 56 million in 2019. And the amount that the operator has yet to collect from the contractor, the state-owned Saudi Railways Organization (SRO), amounts to 185 million euros.
As reported by the newspaper Expansion, the consortium and SRO recently reached an agreement to compensate the losses of the operation of the line to the public operator.