Immigration: Zapatero's gamble
From today a major overhaul of the law will make it easier for illegal immigrants to get legal status as Spain tries to tackle the burgeoning labour 'black economy'. Graham Keeley reports.
'Pateras' bring immigrants to Spain from northern Africa
In an effort to bring illegal immigrants into the state system, the government plans to make it easier for them to get residence permits.
The idea behind this is to stop so-called 'clandestinos' (illegal immigrants) working in the black economy and to get them to pay taxes and social security.
The exact size of the black in economy in Spain is not known though estimates put the number working outside the law at 800,000.
It ranks as one of the main reasons immigrants chose to come to Spain; they can disappear more easily than if they were in Britain or France and find work relatively easily.
At the same time, Spain has one of the lowest birth-rates in Europe and a growing population of pensioners.
Commentators of varying political persuasions have said the country needs more immigrants to pay social security and taxes in order that the State can support the elderly.
They also claim these people are essential to do the jobs many Spaniards regard as below them, despite an unemployment level of 10 percent.
But knowing that welcoming more immigrants into the system might have serious social and political repercussions, prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has sought to strike a deal with business leaders and the unions to ensure these changes are accepted.
Jesus Caldera, the minister for work and social affairs, has agreed a deal with the CEOE, the confederation of Spanish businesses and the two biggest unions, the UGT and the CC OO.
The new Foreigners' Law
From today (7 February), the Socialist government's reform of the existing Foreigners' Law comes in to action.
It means Spain will grant residence permits to immigrants who can provide proof of their registration with a local council from before 8 August last year, proof they have no criminal record and a work contract of six months.
The length of contract can vary depending on the industry, with three months for agricultural workers and for domestic workers weekly contracts of 30 hours. Employers have until 7 May to provide contracts to local authorities.
*quote1*Once they fulfil these conditions and are given conditional approval, immigrants are registered with the social security authorities and start paying contributions to the system.
The government will also want to grant residence permits to those immigrants who blow the whistle on unscrupulous employers — bosses who hire immigrants without a work contract.
Immigration Secretary Consuelo Rumi said the plans were about "easy the integration of foreigners" and also about fighting the black market in immigrant labour.
"This does not mean we are going to give papers to all foreigners. Let that be very clear," she said.
The government also intends to promote legal immigration by delivering three-month visas, designed to give immigrants time to find work in Spain before applying for residence.
Residents of countries which feed most of the illegal migration towards Spain will be given priority for visas.
Currently about 2.6 million foreigners live in Spain, which has a population of 43.2
million, including more than a million illegal immigrants, of whom one third
are Ecuadoran, followed by Colombians, Romanians, Moroccans, Argentinians,
Bulgarians and Ukrainians.
According to a government study, of the 17.24 million jobs in Spain, 850,000 or 4.9 percent, are occupied by immigrants with 34 percent of positions created last year taken by immigrants.
Zapatero had promised an "organised and legal immigration" when his government came into power last April.
Praise and criticism
But, understandably, the p