Portuguese public sector workers enjoyed a four-day holiday recently. The government allowed state sector workers to take last Monday off, followed by the traditional national holiday (Republic Day) on Tuesday. The decision promptly reignited the debate over what some commentators see as the country’s over-generous holiday allowance.
Meanwhile, a new report estimates the annual cost to the economy of Portugal’s 11 obligatory national annual holidays to be 3.5 billion euros. But the situation is actually even worse in terms of financial cost – if the effect of so-called “bridge” days is also included, then the overall price paid is, according to Luis Bento, a professor at Porto University and a consultant at the World Bank, “dramatic”.
These long weekends or “pontes” have long been controversial in Portugal. The government’s decision to give public sector employees last Monday off comes at a time when the national debate is centred on ways to increase economic growth. Bento maintains that the government is merely engaging in politically expedient and populist measures. “It is unjustifiable and anti-economic,” he says. Even union leader, Carvalho da Silva from the CGTP (the Portuguese Confederation of General Workers Union), concedes the four-day holiday is unjustifiable. But he added an important qualification – namely that debates over these ‘bridging’ holidays should not be allowed to undermine the entitlements of workers. “It is a frivolous and populist measure aimed at damping down workers’ unrest,” said da Silva. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Francisco Van Zeller, from the Confederation of Portuguese Industry (CIP) goes further, describing the decision as “a bad practice” on the part of the government as it “gives the impression that work is a sacrifice”. Bento also points out the deleterious effects on the economy: “People don’t know which services are open or closed and the effect is strangling the economy. In particular, the effect of a ‘bridging holiday’ on Monday, followed by another national holiday on Tuesday, is that, when work resumes on Wednesday, there are low rates of production at the beginning of the day,” he says. Even President Sampaio waded into the debate about these four-day breaks. “We have so many problems already. So why do we want to add to them?” he asked.