Monday, January 24, 2011

Will Spain See A New Generation Of Emigrants?

I went down to my 'quiosco' to buy my paper a couple of weeks ago. I know, I am one of those hopeless dinosaurs who still likes to buy a newspaper made of paper. Part of the reason why I still do it, apart from habit, is that the man I buy my paper from is a chatty, cheerful person even on the most miserable of days and we usually talk a bit about world affairs; from a footballing perspective. Focused especially on the fortunes of a club located down near Madrid's famous river.

On this particular day, though, we talked about something else. He said he was having a conversation with another customer about how Spaniards were emigrating in search of work because of the crisis. My first reaction was to ask "where to?". After all, there aren't that many countries on the search for immigrants at the moment with much of Europe still supposed to be attempting an exit from the crisis. My second reaction was to say that not so much has changed, the scarcity of work in Spain may be making more people think about leaving in search of opportunities, but the reality is that many were doing the same even at the height of the economic boom.

The issue has come to the fore this week with reports that Germany will be looking to recruit qualified Spaniards when Mrs Merkel comes to town in a few weeks to survey the wreckage. But leaving aside for the moment the effects of the crisis, why would many young Spaniards have left the country during the good times? The comparison with Germany becomes important at this stage. Germany's economy contracted almost as much as Spain's during 2009, something which many Spaniards find difficult to accept in their belief that the Spanish crisis was somehow unique. The big difference is that unemployment hardly rose in Germany, whilst in Spain it shot up through the roof.

The fault of the Spanish government, many argue, but if you want to understand why Spain didn't adopt something like the 'kurzarbeit' policy that saved many jobs in Germany you have to look beyond the government and include the employers in the overall picture. A scheme where the government pays a portion of what would otherwise just be paid as unemployment benefits so that workers don't lose their jobs seems like a no-brainer. The fundamental problem I think lies with the employment culture in Spain, and this is where the question of emigration even during the good times comes back into play.

The German companies wanted to keep their workforce, they had probably trained many of their employees and it makes long term economic sense to maintain stability if you can do it. Spain's boom, on the other hand, was dominated by short-termism. The search for the next 'pelotazo', which goes hand in hand with contracting people on a series of temporary contracts so that if you suddenly decide there is more money in jamón de bellota instead of solar panels you just get rid of one set of workers and recruit another. In the land of the Diaz Ferráns there was never much of an audience amongst employers for the idea of protecting employment, on the contrary.

Then there is a structure in so many companies which is frankly discouraging to anyone thinking of making a career. You might be very well qualified, you might even be really good at your job, but you can still find yourself dedicating years of effort in the same post to supporting a thick, immovable, layer of bosses and the associated 'enchufados' above you. Sure you'll get told how well you're doing occasionally, although your performance is unlikely to be reflected in the salary you get paid. That's why I work for myself and why many talented Spaniards have decided that they have better opportunities elsewhere, regardless of the macro-economic figures of the day. It's easy to criticise people for opting to become funcionarios, but not so easy to explain what better options are available for them.

Nor is there any reason to imagine that this will change dramatically over the years to come. The Partido Popular, feeling itself close to power again, is selling a seductive and in many ways comfortable notion that all that is needed is a change of government for the sweet smell of economic success to return. It's a tempting but cruel delusion for those unwilling to think too deeply about where that growth might come from. The 13 years or so of boom left behind no base of any kind for future economic growth, based as it was mostly on a variety of 'build and grab'. Spain's boom years were built on circumstances that no longer exist, and even if the PP want to give the lords of the ladrillo another run for other people's money there is the tiny detail of those hundreds of thousands of unsold dwellings. Emigration is a worse option now than it was a few years ago, but the difference is not as great as some would pretend.


Lavengro said...

If you get away from your nationalist point of view of people emigrating from Spain to Germany, and see that people will always move from the poorer parts of an economic area to the richer ones, then the phenomenon seems perfectly normal and natural in European terms. It is no different from people moving from Extremadura or Galicia to Barcelona or Madrid.

Of course, such movement must be handled properly and regions must be maintained from the centre in some way but that is a different matter.

Jeremy Holland said...

@ Lavengro Actually it's very different than internal migration. It's much harder to immigrate to a new country because of the language / cultural issues. Tougher to find a job if you don't speak the lingo. not to mention distance, lack of family support. that's why there's less mobility in Europe compared to the states.

I think for the most part Graeme is correct. Although he left out the lack of Spanish mulitnationals in order to form a pact as they did in Germany. Of course even if there were some, it would require a government that didn't put corporate interests above the national ones like they do in the states.

Graeme said...


Yes, but what I'm arguing is that it's not just about rich and poor, it's about opportunities to live the kind of life you're seeking. Given better career possibilities, most people in Spain would probably be happier to stay even if the salaries were lower than elsewhere. There's two sides to the story, many who have had the opportunity to migrate elsewhere choose not to take it.


I don't know how much difference the existence of multinationals makes - Spain does have them as any South American will be able to tell you. I don't know enough about the internal culture of Telefónica or Endesa to say whether there is a difference there.

Coco said...

How much do you think salary expectations enter into this? If it´s the usual race to the bottom Spanish emigrants will work for lower salaries than qualified Germans, but native South Americans will probably work for less than Spanish emigrants.

But how does this affect the pensions debate? If the already shrinking pool of younger workers gets skimmed off to Germany, who´s left to pick up the tab?

Graeme said...

The problem is that if Spain can't provide quality employment then people will look elsewhere. I don't think it's just about salaries. But none of the "reforms" being implemented at the moment are about providing better jobs - it's more the reverse. Which is why pensions are being cut too.