Employees at Deloitte, PwC, EY and KPMG complained about working up to 16 hours per day.
A year after the Spanish Labour Ministry began investigating working practices and conditions at the so-called 'Big Four' consultancies - Deloitte, PwC, EY and KPMG - the public body has decided to impose a fine totalling at least €1.4 million.
Authorities were investigating whether employees were actually working longer hours than their records showed.
In some cases, employees of the Big Four complained about spending up to 16 hours per day at work.
All four companies have been approached for comment.
Spanish media report the investigation was not easy as the consultancies lacked an hourly register, which is a requirement for all companies since the change in Spanish law in 2019.
This alleged lack of accountability made it easy for “marathon working days” to become the norm, Sergio Padilla, a former employee at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) consultancy in Madrid, told Euronews.
Like his colleagues, Padilla - whose name has been changed to protect his identity used to work 12 hours a day: from 9 am until 9 pm.
This seemed completely normal to him, as all his colleagues at the consultancy were in the same situation.
He would barely have any free time after work, just going home to get some sleep before returning to the office once again. He didn’t even have time to buy groceries from the supermarket, ending up eating fast food for every meal instead.
During his two years with the company, Padilla said he became increasingly "bitter" until he finally decided to leave voluntarily and move back to his hometown.
Record profits, worsening working conditions
The ‘Big Four’ offices were raided in November 2022 after the Spanish Ministry of Labour, headed by Minister Yolanda Díaz, opened the investigation ex officio, without any complaint having been lodged.
“Inspectors detected practices that they considered may be outside the scope of labour law, through the press or social media, and acted," sources from the Ministry told Euronews.
The Ministry collected information and documents on how these companies monitored the working hours of their employees and whether overtime was paid or compensated.
Spain's consulting sector has seen major workforce fatigue, according to Raúl de la Torre from Comisiones Obreras, a Spanish trade union.
"A few months ago they [employers] wanted to include in the [employment] agreement that we had to work up to 12 hours a day from Monday to Saturday, without any additional compensation. We launched a campaign on social media that led to the first strike in the sector," he says.
De la Torre claims working conditions have only worsened since 2008, while companies have reported record profits.
In 2021, the 'Big Four' firms made €2.5 billion during the fiscal year, according to figures collected by the newspaper Expansión.
"The maximum duration of the working day is not respected, the rest period required by law is not respected, and the pay gets worse each day,” alleged de la Torre.
“We have copies of the contracts in the sector and there are people working in Madrid who earn €14,000 a year.”
After months of negotiations and strikes, they reached an agreement that will see graduate workers, who were previously paid €14,100 gross a year, earn up to €15,300.
They also agreed that workers with three years' experience should not be paid less than €17,100.
Sacrificing in an unstable labour market
Although employees' expectations of benefits and working conditions have changed in recent years, Padilla insists that marathon working days have become the norm at the ‘Big Four’.
"In 2008, with the crisis, if there was a job available, we had four people looking for it. It has been ingrained in people's minds that we have to be very grateful for the job," says the trade union spokesperson.
In addition, many of the new hires at the big consulting firms are recent graduates.
According to the latest report published by the Spanish Association of Consulting Companies, 29 per cent of the new contracts made by these companies in 2021 were for fresh graduates who still had no work experience.
Young people see this sacrifice as a way to catapult their careers.