Many leave austerity-ridden Spain for a brighter future here, only to be sadly disappointed, reports CARLOS GONZALEZ
THE ECONOMIC crisis of 2008 had a dramatic effect in Spain, revealing a weak and volatile economy largely dependent on the construction industry.
Before the crisis hit, then prime minister Jose Maria Aznar proudly claimed that Spain was constructing more housing than Germany, Britain and France put together, boasting about what he thought was the successful model of the Spanish economic renaissance.
But the worldwide economic crisis sparked by banks and their mortgage debts bankrupted Spanish banks, necessitating a bailout from the public purse. It was the Spanish people who footed the bill.
The government loaned the banks €60 billion — which is never going to be paid back — while the ruling right-wing Popular Party (PP), ideological inheritors of nationalist Catholic Francoism, increased the cuts in education, public healthcare and pensions by far more than €30bn.
Austerity policies led to a rise in tuition fees and the deterioration of health services and the privatisation of certain sectors.
Corruption is devastating both the Spanish economy and political trust.
The recent case of Luis Barcenas, former PP treasurer, found guilty of bribing high government officials and illegal party funding, revealed the criminal nature of the Spanish conservatives who have ruled Spain for the last six years.
Corruption costs the country €87bn per year, which adds to the increasing debt. Spain is between the hammer and the anvil.
The lack of jobs together with the downturn in public investment had resulted in 2.6 million people in poverty by 2015.
Thousands of Spaniards have faced eviction as many cannot pay their mortgages to the banks that were rescued by their taxes.
The housing boom Aznar bragged about ended up in the hands of a few powerful banks and holiday companies which undoubtedly took advantage of the crisis.
This tragic situation has resulted in a sharp rise in people taking their own lives. Yet while the number of poor people has increased by 10 per cent since the beginning of the crisis, wealthy Spaniards now own 10 per cent more than before, illustrating how profitable the crisis has been for the bourgeoisie.
Nationally, unemployment — which has hit the poorer regions of southern Spain particularly hard — is around 22 per cent, with more than four in 10 young people out of work.
The labour market holds little promise. The conservative government’s solution to the crisis is creating temporary, part-time and low-paid jobs with the sole purpose of embellishing the unemployment figures and making the rich even richer.
Meanwhile, textile production, shipbuilding and mining — the former industrial cornerstones of the north and east of the country — dwindle year on year thanks to the all-too-familiar processes of relocation and globalisation. It seems that Spain’s economy will solely depend on large-scale resort-based tourism.
Thus it is not surprising that nearly one million Spaniards have emigrated since 2008. Germany, Britain and France are the main destinations that Spaniards, especially the young, are choosing as better prospects for work.
Of course, the government could not ignore this brain drain. In 2013, Employment Minister Fatima Banez — who had previously thanked the Virgin of El Rocio, an ornate statue of Mary and baby Jesus, for her help in solving the job crisis — referred to the people who were emigrating as “young adventurers seeking opportunities abroad.” In ignoring the reality of emigrants, Banez provoked the anger of Spanish expats.
I’m one of them. I moved to Britain last year, one of the 100,000-plus Spanish immigrants to this country. From Edinburgh to Brighton, from Liverpool to Hull, our communities are dispersed and varied.
In Edinburgh, the local Spanish community teamed up with director Iciar Bollain to produce the documentary En Tierra Extrana (In a Foreign Land), raising awareness about the living standards and working conditions of Spanish emigrants.
But the profile of the Spanish emigrant is pretty varied. It is true that some are educated to degree level or higher but many have no qualifications. While for most there are no difficulties in finding employment — it takes, on average, less than a month to get work — they are normally unskilled, low-paid and insecure jobs in the hospitality sector.
Such precarity is the main concern of Spanish expats. Olaia, from Burgos in northern Spain, has worked as waitress in London for two different restaurants.
“The working hours were never clear,” she told me. “I had to stay until my manager informed me I could go home. And, even worse, I didn’t have a contract.”
This is also the reality for Spanish nurses and doctors hired by the NHS, whose chief executive Simon Stevens has said that Britain depends on foreign doctors and nurses, many of whom come from Spain.
Although Britain’s impending exit from the European Union is the main reason for the 90 per cent decrease in foreign nurses registering to work here, working conditions are actually pivotal to understanding why this is happening.
Maria, who worked as nurse in a hospital in central London, says: “Here we just live from hand to mouth and you may even lose money instead of building up savings.” For many, nursing is a job which feels overworked and underpaid, especially for immigrants who are hired for less-qualified posts.
The uncertainty about the possible consequences of Brexit, in not being able to have access to free healthcare or social benefits and the possibility of being deported, makes the process of adaptation and integration even harder.
British society is pretty alien to many Spaniards. The language barrier, different customs, different social dynamics — let alone food — all take time to get accustomed to.
Unfortunately, the recent Brexit-related attacks on Spanish immigrants reveal an anti-immigration feeling among some Brits which has made us feel even more insecure lately.
To address these issues and the alienation of Spaniards in Britain, political collectives such as Marea Granate (Maroon Wave) or parties like Podemos have their own branches in Britain.
Marea Granate is a transnational organisation of Spanish emigrants who want to fight both for their rights as immigrants and for the recovery of their home country.
They have organised several demonstrations and initiatives to claim their rights or to ask for the resignation of corrupt politicians, thanks to which they are now recognised as a powerful grassroots movement.
Irene, a London branch activist, appeared before the Spanish parliament last month to represent the interests of Spanish emigrants globally, especially in Britain after Brexit. She demanded demanded assistance to Spanish citizens living here in a climate of increasing xenophobia.
All Spanish expats want is to find their place in British society. We are waiters, teachers, nurses, doctors, cooks, translators, journalists.
Many of us are willing to return to our country but are happy to have a second homeland full of opportunities in which we can build a better life.
But we also want to keep up the fight against a government which has turned its back on us.
Let us hope we will have a place in post-Brexit Britain. Will we?
nCarlos Gonzalez is a former student activist at the University of Salamanca, Spain, who now lives in London.