Immigrants first to feel squeeze as Spain's boom turns to bust

27th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

But since the construction boom which was the engine of the country's decade-long expansion came to an abrupt end last year, employers are shedding workers at a rapid pace -- and the low-skilled jobs typically occupied by immigrants have been hit hardest.

Madrid -- Lured by the promise of wealth and easy employment in a booming economy, millions of immigrants poured into Spain from Latin America, Eastern Europe and North Africa over the past decade.

But since the construction boom which was the engine of the country's decade-long expansion came to an abrupt end last year, employers are shedding workers at a rapid pace -- and the low-skilled jobs typically occupied by immigrants have been hit hardest.

"I really wasn't expecting this when I left my country," said Jessica, a 30-year-old Ecuadorian, as she stood in a long line outside a government unemployment office in the working-class Madrid neighbourhood of Santa Eugenia, wrapped in two coats to guard against the cold.

She arrived in Spain in 2001 and says she always had a job until her contract for a job as a packer at a food wholesaler was cut short earlier this month.

"I am going to collect unemployment benefits for a few months and after that I don't know how I am going to raise my children," she added, referring to a 13-year-old who she left behind in Ecuador and a two-year-old born in Spain.

Like Jessica, 42-year-old Peruvian Marco Antonio also arrived in Spain in 2001 in search of a better life, only to see the dream crumble in recent months.

He used to earn 1,400 euros (1,900 dollars) a month as a construction worker, an amount that allowed him to live comfortably in Madrid and send money back to Peru to support his family.

Now he collects 700 euros a month in government jobless benefits.

"It is barely enough to pay for somewhere to sleep and to eat," he said.

The number of immigrants in Spain rocketed from around 500,000 in 1996 to just over five million currently, or about 11 percent of the total population of 46 million.

"Spain went from being an exporter of workers in the 1960s and 70s, to being an importer of workers," said Gustavo Matias Clavero, an economics professor at Madrid's Autonomous University.

Now these workers are increasingly finding themselves, like Jessica and Marco, standing in line at unemployment offices since the jobless rate is rising at a faster pace among immigrants than it is for the general population.

Just over three million people were unemployed at the end of December in Spain, a 46.9 percent increase from a year previously and the highest level in 12 years, according to labour ministry figures.

The number of jobless foreigners at the end of December stood at 410,960, a 94 percent jump over the same time last year, according to the ministry.

Spain's unemployment rate during the third quarter of 2008, the last available figure, hit 11.3 percent, the highest level in the 27-nation European Union, and the government expects it will rise to 15.9 percent this year before starting to fall.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, is more pessimistic. It sees the unemployment rate continuing to rise in Spain to 16.1 percent in 2010 and 18.7 percent the following year.

"Foreigners are going to continue to suffer in 2009," said Clavero.

The rise in unemployment has already led Spaniards to once again seek jobs they had shunned and left to immigrants during the boom times, such as picking crops on farms, unions officials say.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's socialist government, which issued an amnesty for over 600,000 illegal immigrants in 2005, has decided to close the door to foreign workers.

Spain plans to recruit just 901 workers in their country of origin this year, excluding seasonal workers employed mostly in farms, compared to 15,700 in 2008, and it has made it more difficult for immigrants already living in the country to have their family members join them.

The government has also launched a programme to ease the "voluntary return" of jobless immigrants which allows them to collect their unemployment benefits in two lump-sum payments if they go back to their countries of origin.

So far some 1,400 unemployed immigrants have applied.

Among those thinking of returning home is 43-year-old Bolivian welder Octavio Flores, who has been out of work since August and does not know how he is going to pay his rent.

"It can't be worse than here," he said.

AFP/Expatica

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