Spain ministers go back on migrant worker freeze

8th September 2008, Comments 0 comments

The government say on Friday that the visas for migrant workers in 2009 would not be cut down as sharply as originally suggested.

8 September 2008

MADRID -- The government on Friday attempted to extricate itself from a growing controversy over its immigration policy, saying that visas for migrant workers in 2009 would not be cut back as sharply as originally suggested.

"One is not always perfect at explaining things. I never said that workers would stop being hired abroad; I am a supporter of that policy," Labour Minister Celestino Corbacho said in an interview on Cadena SER radio Friday.

His comments, which followed a rebuttal by Deputy Prime Minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega earlier in the day, appeared to suggest that Spain would continue to hire migrant workers in their countries of origin next year, though at a lesser rate than before.

On Wednesday, Corbacho had said the number of visas for migrant workers would be reduced to "roughly zero" in 2009.

"We support orderly immigration based on the needs of the labour market," De la Vega said.

However, with unemployment rocketing as the economy slows, it is unlikely Spain will grant visas for anywhere near the 200,000 migrant workers allowed into the country in 2007.

"There are 2.5 million unemployed in Spain and that is cause for thought. We must see what qualifications these people have and find alternatives... It seems reasonable that we should try to fill jobs with people who are already here," Corbacho said.

The decision to revise the number of migrant worker visas is one of several proposals aimed at limiting the number of foreigners working or looking for work in Spain that have sparked controversy among immigrant groups and labour unions.

With the economy slowing, unemployment spiralling and social services coming under increasing pressure, the Socialist administration has toughened its stance on immigration since it won re-election in March.

The first sign that immigration rules would be changed came as Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero formed his Cabinet in April. Out went Jesús Caldera, the former holder of the labour portfolio whose speeches during the last legislature often focused on Spain's "solidarity" toward migrant workers and how much the country needed them, not least to fill jobs in the then booming construction industry.

In came Corbacho, the former mayor of Hospitalet de Llobregat, a town where one in four residents is a foreigner.

It did not take long for the new labour and immigration minister to start stirring controversy.

"In this country, we will have all the immigrants that are necessary, but all must have a work contract," he said soon after taking the oath of office.

"Immigration can never work on the basis of last in, first served," he added.

To many immigrant associations, labour unions and some opposition politicians, it seemed that Corbacho had forgotten that the migrants who had come to build homes, care for the elderly, clean stores and do work many Spaniards shun were not just workers but also human beings.

Two further policy measures crystallized that view for many.

Immigrants, the government announced, would be offered unemployment pay owed to them in a lump sum if they returned home and agreed not to come back for three years.

Corbacho originally suggested that the measure would benefit more than a million jobless migrants, who make up roughly 40 percent of the total number of unemployed in Spain.

In reality, the measure is only applicable to around 100,000 - those from countries with social security agreements with Spain - of whom only around 10 percent are likely to take up the offer.

"Those foreigners who can take home between 15 and 18 months' worth of unemployment pay are those who have been working here for at least six years, and in most cases that means they have a house and family," noted Rafael Hernando, an opposition Popular Party spokesman.

With that measure unlikely to have a major impact, the government turned its attention to preventing more migrants from coming. In June, Corbacho announced that the Immigration Law would be changed to prevent immigrants from bringing their parents and in-laws to Spain on family reunification visas.

"There is a family nucleus that is undeniable: the couple and children under 18. Everything else is debatable," Corbacho said.

The thinly veiled motive for the change was economic. Elderly parents of immigrants tend not to work, but are a burden on the social security system because of their greater healthcare needs.

Unions and left-wing parties have bridled at the changes, arguing that Corbacho is trying to pin the blame on immigrants for Spain's economic ills.

"We are starting to worry that every time the minister talks about the economy he refers to immigration as if it was the cause of unemployment. It is an irresponsible message," Almudena Fontecha, a spokeswoman for the UGT union, said after the visa announcement this week.

[El Pais / Andrew Eatwell / Expatica]

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