Immigrants to Spain are taking jobs but also driving the economy

Story by Caroline Edwards

MADRID – Though conventional wisdom might suggest the ailing economies in Europe want to keep out immigrants, migrant workers are crucial to the productivity and sustainability of the Spanish economy, said Francisco Javier Moreno Fuentes in a lecture earlier this week.

A welcoming mindset toward immigration contradicts political posturing in Spain, where politicians are using an abundance of foreign workers to delegitimize welfare and social spending programs. But Javier Moreno Fuentes, a research fellow at the Institute of Public Goods and Policies of the Spanish National Research Council, said that border and immigration policies are ultimately decided by a country’s economic need at the time.

Francisco Javier Moreno Fuentes says that Spaniards need to accept immigrants as an inextricable, and necessary, part of the workforce.

Francisco Javier Moreno Fuentes says that Spaniards need to accept immigrants as an inextricable, and necessary, part of the workforce. Photo by Maria Amasanti.

Moreno has written four books on immigration and has taught at both the undergraduate and graduate levels at two different universities. He spoke at a local English and Spanish language school about the enormous influence immigrants are having on culture, economics and policy in Spain and the European Union.

He said groups such as the country’s ruling People’s Party push an agenda that paints immigrants as a demographic looking to “come here, not to work, but to commit crimes and take advantage of welfare programs.”

The reality, Moreno said, is that migrant workers are attracted to jobs, not social programs. Plus, immigrants play an integral role in the Spanish economy, filling low-pay jobs that natives don’t want.

For example, many immigrants find jobs in agriculture, such as picking strawberries, which is a low-margin product for farmers but a catalyst for production in many other industries.

“There’s no money to be made in strawberries,” Moreno said. “It’s all the industries that live around it.” These include packaging, equipment manufacturing and shipping, among others.

Immigration is also aiding the economy by temporarily guaranteeing the sustainability of the public pension system. Moreno explained that a country’s demographic distribution should resemble a pyramid or a pear – “a very big base, so lots of young people, lots of people working, and few people at the top, basically just living out of pensions.” The key, he said, is that people need to have enough children to sustain the next generation of workers.

And this is explicitly not happening in Spain.

Spaniards have been having an average of 1.2 to 1.3 kids for the past two decades. To sustain the population and maintain a supportive base for public programs, the country needs to average  2.1 per family, said Moreno.

For the next 15 to 20 years, immigration will compensate for this demographic imbalance, as it did between 1995 and 2008, when Spain experienced a massive economic growth and a jobs explosion. It was the immigrants, Moreno said, who allowed women – traditionally expected to stay at home to care for children and elders – to join the workforce.

Businesses were eager to put immigrants to work as well.

Rather than make expensive commitments to capital investments – machinery, equipment – Spanish business owners chose a labor-intensive model, enabled by the access to cheap labor.

“Employers, in a way, became lazy and comfortable in Spain because they could rely on cheap labor,” Moreno said. This was more cost-effective short-term. But it ended up stunting the growth of Spanish industries in the global market. As a result, the economic infrastructure could not support the growth long-term, specifically in sectors such as construction and agriculture.

“This actually happened by focusing on certain economic sectors that were not particularly competitive in global markets such as construction, agriculture and the tourist industry,” said Moreno.

With so many immigrants now in the country, the current buckling economy and joblessness account for a portion of the anti-immigrant sentiment that exists in Spain today. Much of it is also tied to racist stereotypes, Moreno said, adding that there has been a gradual emergence of anti-immigration platforms within the extreme right political parties, said Moreno.

Some of the politicization of immigration is tied to Spain’s geographic positioning as one of the gatekeepers to the entrance to the European Union. As the southern-most country in the EU, many immigrants attempt to enter the region through the Spanish territories of Melilla and Ceuta, which are physically located on the north African shore.

Once foreigners become undocumented immigrants within Spain, as long as they live in the country for 10 years, they can apply for and obtain a Spanish passport through a three-year process.

Moving forward, Moreno stressed that Spaniards must reevaluate their attitudes toward immigrants. Once they have children, those children are not considered immigrants. They are Spanish citizens and should be treated accordingly.

“This poses a very clear challenge. Are we going to treat them as equals? Not discriminated against because they have a different origin or ethnic features?” he asked. “Or are we going to think like our parents, and think that immigrants are always going to be cleaning toilets or picking strawberries when that is not the case?”

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About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.

Posted on May 29, 2014, in Reporting from Madrid and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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