By 8:00 a.m., the queue of people waiting to collect unemployment checks one recent morning at the downtown Madrid office of INEM (the National Employment Institute) was already long. That’s not a surprise: Spain’s 16 percent unemployment rate in (February) was the highest in Europe—a grim sign that the once-buoyant Spanish economy is now history.
But Spaniards were not the only ones in line. Roberto C., who arrived from his native Ecuador six years ago, is one of the thousands of Latin American immigrant workers who have taken advantage of—and contributed to— Spain’s boom over the past decade. But now, thanks to a November 2008 law, as a legal immigrant he can cash out with a one-time payment of 60 percent of his total unemployment benefits if he agrees to return home. It’s a deal that Roberto, who did not want to provide his last name, could not resist.
With Spain’s Minister of Economy, Pedro Solbes, predicting that the national economy will continue to slump through 2010, Roberto saw the writing on the wall. As a construction worker earning 800 euros a month over the past six years, he qualifies for a monthly subsidy of 645 euros over two years. He calculates that would amount to a lump sum total of 15,486 euros (approximately $21,680). “Take off 1,000 euros for the plane ticket and I have 14,000 euros to start fresh in Ecuador,” he says. On paper the figure may sound generous, but this government “gift” still bears a cost. Roberto and the rest of the 2,213 immigrants who applied for payments by February 2009 under the so-called “Voluntary Return Law” must give up their work permits and promise not to return to Spain for at least three years.
For most of their counterparts, in fact, the price is too high. The Spanish government only expects 10,000 immigrants per year to take advantage of the law. Miguel Pajares of the Centro de Estudios de Comisiones Obreras (CECCOO) in Cataluña predicts that an estimated 700,000 unemployed immigrant workers will remain behind. The program is “great for those already thinking about returning to their native countries,” says Pajares, “but, of course, it is no system for combating unemployment.” Raúl Jiméneza Zavala, spokesperson for Rumiñahui, the principal association of Ecuadorian immigrants in Spain, explains that most immigrants have mortgages to pay and children born and raised in a Spanish environment. “This plan is not feasible for the great majority of immigrants who are already rooted here,” he says. “What we really need to work on is jump-starting the return to employment in Spain.