LABOUR MINISTER STIRS UP AN IMMIGRANT STORM

Labour and immigration Minister Celestino Corbacho cause a bit of a storm last week when he said that he proposed to lower the contracting of immigrant workers in their home countries to zero as soon as possible. Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega quickly stepped in to correct the minister, saying the contract agreement made with several African countries were still valid, after farmers complained they would have no experienced workers to pick their crops. One told reporters: “The Spanish don’t want to do this work because it’s hard and dirty so we’ve spent years training all these foreigners to do it instead. If we have to employ Spaniards again we’ll probably lose the crop the first year.” The foreigners’ associations are also unhappy, saying that the minister is blaming the workers for the lack of jobs for Spaniards. In fact, many foreigners, especially Latin Americans, have been accepting the government offer of around €18,000 to those who volunteer to go back to their home and not return to Spain for three years, when the government expects the economic crisis will have abated. The scheme applies to the citizens of 19 non-EU countries which share social security agreements with Spain. In just a decade, Spain’s immigrant population rose by 800%, and cheap immigrant labour was a vital factor in the construction-led economic boom. As long as there was work to go round, Spain mostly avoided the kind of immigration-related tensions witnessed in other European countries. Today, however, with an EU-high unemployment rate of 10.7%, the picture looks very different. For the time being, the 2.1 million foreigners registered for Spanish social security are net contributors to the system – paying in more than they receive. But over the past 12 months, the number of immigrants claiming unemployment benefit has surged by 81%, to 178,230 in July 2008. Under the new scheme, scheduled for launch in September, participating immigrants would receive two years worth of up-front unemployment benefits – 40% when they volunteer for the scheme in Spain, the rest on arrival back in their country of origin. To qualify, they would have to surrender their Spanish work and residence papers for the duration of the deal. But immigrant welfare groups view the policy with suspicion. A spokesman for the Hispano-Ecuadorean Foundation in Madrid said: “We feel we’ve been used. When they needed cheap labour, the doors opened. And now they don’t need us, they just say ‘thank you and goodbye’ – and expect us to go back to our own countries.” But Mr Corbacho has denied that Spain is ungrateful for the contribution made by immigrants, or that foreigners are being made scapegoats for the country’s economic woes. He said: “Immigration is not a problem, it’s a phenomenon, and phenomena are never neutral – they change a lot of things and create new challenges. Our challenge is to manage this phenomenon, so that our diverse, multicultural society avoids conflict in the future.” Other EU governments, facing similar challenges, will no doubt be closely monitoring the Spanish scheme’s progress.

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