Family values soften impact of Spain's 22% unemployment
Sunday 29 October 1995
Migrants flocked to Orcasitas from the parched feudal estates of Andalucia to land steady jobs in the nearby Peugeot car plant, Marconi electronics factory and the glassworks. They organised trade unions and a neighbourhood association in the teeth of Franco's repression. Later they took on the democratic government and fought off attempts to decamp them to make way for speculative luxury housing.
Today the plants are silent. Unemployment here far exceeds Spain's national average of 22 per cent, which is the highest in Europe, and still rising. In a community once the heart of Madrid's industrial "red belt", those with one breadwinner in a family that may comprise five adults count themselves lucky.
"Spain was a rural society until 20 years ago. The country has moved from a pre-industrial to a post-industrial society within a generation," says Fernando Caballero, director of Orcasitas's education centre for the unemployed, was set up five years ago.
"The shock of being out of work makes people feel passive and defeatist. They are no longer," says Mr Caballero, using an expression typical of Spaniards who participated in the transformation of their world, "protagonists of their epoch."
They cope by resorting to old customs, such as falling back on the family, which is increasingly fulfilling its traditional role as protective umbrella against shortcomings in the welfare system, and the only effective way to get work. Surveys show that the family is what Spaniards value above God, country, work, friends, leisure or anything else.
Carlos, 21, helps with a community radio station, Radio Free Orcasitas that broadcasts from the education centre, awaiting call-up for community service in lieu of military service. Last year a six-month contract delivering pizzas was not renewed, and he expects only ever to find temporary work. "I live at home with my two brothers, aged 20 and 23. None of us really works. My father is retired and we live on his pension." How many of his friends had jobs? He thought for a moment. "None of them." And they all live at home? "Yes."
Three women in their twenties waiting for their class in technical design all said they lived with their parents who were retired or out of work, and that they managed on grants and their parents' pension or dole. Did they hope to have their own place one day? Laughter and shaking of heads. "Out of the question."
The education centre receives government and EU funds. It contains workshops where 500 local jobless learn manual skills such as plumbing, gas installation, soldering and carpentry.
Pedro, 38, in a group learning to build fitted kitchens, was laid off two years ago as warehouse supervisor at a department store. "People say I'm too old to get another job. Fortunately my wife works, so my 19- year-old daughter can keep studying." He plans to set up a kitchen-fitting business with two others when he finishes the course, but adds that red tape meant he would have to do it informally, as part of the "grey economy".
This prompts a heated discussion of "chapuza" - literally, "botched work" - shorthand for the submerged sector that is estimated to account for 25 per cent of Spain's gross domestic product. Chapuza complements the family as a cushion againstprolonged unemployment.
Santiago, 30, who lives with his mother, has been unemployed for five years. But, he says to general laughter, he has never been out of work. "There's always something, a contract for a couple of days here and there, sometimes by the hour, building work, loading, seasonal work." Payment in cash, no insurance, no questions asked. It sounds like a return to the insecurity his forebears left behind in Andalucia. He becomes serious, nods. "We are the peons of the city."
A law passed last year to create more jobs produced only exploitative short-term "contratos basura" (rubbish contracts) and less job security, the kitchen-fitters say. How do they feel? "Swindled," says Bernardo, 45, a former machine tool operator. "Every morning at 8am I feel depressed," says Pedro, "when my wife goes to work and my daughters to school, and I'm left at home feeling useless."
And social life? Do they get out much? "Social life?" Santiago is astounded. "Of course. This is Spain." But even in a society renowned for its street life, where it is not hard to have fun on little money, the unemployed spend much of their time at home. The basic dole of 40,000 pesetas per month (pounds 200), supplemented within a family by pension, redundancy pay, student grant and travel passes, offers modest protection from poverty but little margin for luxury.
For the army of youngsters who live at home - some 70 per cent of Spaniards between 18 and 29 - the cost is prolonged parental dependence and what Mr Caballero calls a postponement of adulthood. "A generation is growing up who will never reach proper maturity. What's more there'll be an increase of shoddy work because of chapuza. I worry that this will make us decline into mediocrity."
The government admits prospects are bleak for those out of work for more than a year, those over 40, and for the disproportionate number of unemployed women. Alberto Elordi, director of the government's National Employment Institute (Inem), says: "We did in 15 years what took the rest of Europe 40. We lost 2 million jobs in the countryside and 2 million women joined the labour market."
Inem paid pounds 90bn in subsidies last year, the most in Europe, to ease the effects of unemployment. But no one seems to know how to create jobs. Last month's upturn in jobless coincided with a modest economic recovery. Millions of Spaniards will be calling upon the resources of their tolerant families and their improvisational skills for some time to come.
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