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Illegal employment

Life in the shadows

by Veronica Frenzel
Illegal immigrants are hit particularly hard by the global economic crisis. In Spain, for example, the slump in construction has radically reduced the job market for immigrants with no papers. At the same time, Eastern Europeans, Chinese, Africans and South Americans are finding fewer and fewer jobs in agriculture. As competition intensifies and working conditions get worse, the prospects for illegal immigrants look increasingly bleak. Our author tells the tale of three men. [ By Veronica Frenzel ]

Moussa S. (31) from Senegal set out in search of a better life – but what he found is not what he expected. The intersection at La Mojonera near Almería is grey and dusty. Colourless buildings cower before the incessant wind. For two months, Moussa has seen the sun rise here every morning. His daily hope: to find an employer willing to give him a few hours work.

Pressed against a house wall, his cap pulled down over his eyes and his hands in his pockets, Moussa stares straight ahead. Whenever a truck pulls up, his eyes dart to the driver. Could this one be the answer to his prayers? But no one stops to pick him up. The only eyes Moussa catches are those of the other despondent immigrants waiting with him. Their number grows daily.

“The hothouses on the coast of Almería are Europe’s waiting room for illegal immigrants,” says Spitu Mendy of the farmworkers union SOC. “There are no jobs here for anyone with a work permit.” The wages paid on the aubergine, courgette and tomato plantations are paltry. Here, € 30 for an eight-hour day is good money; pay has been depressed by the economic crisis.

Since the bubble of Spain's economic miracle burst, there has been no work in construction. Newspapers constantly report new unemployment records. And there are virtually no jobs for illegal immigrants like Moussa. Spaniards themselves are returning to the fields. And illegals who previously worked on building sites are now trying their luck in agriculture. Around a quarter of the four-and-a-half million immigrants registered in Spain are currently out of work, and the number is rising.

Illegal immigrants – which the Spanish government believes to number another million or so – are even worse off. According to estimates by the European Commission, the grey economy – which is not allowed to exist by law and which is not based only on illegal immigration – accounts for between 12 and 23 % of GDP in EU member states. Spain is at the top of the table.

People and tomatoes

“Workers' wages are like the price of tomatoes: the greater the supply, the lower the price paid.” Manuel Sabio Perez is in his hothouse in Almería. The temperature beneath its plastic roof exceeds 30 degrees Celsius; outside, it is just 15 degrees. Rows of tomato plants stretch as far as the eye can see – and neighbouring hothouses offer a similar sight. There are 26,000 hectares of tomatoes in the province of Almería alone.

Moussa arrived in Spain in January, seeking a better life for his wife, son and parents. His passage on the wooden boat from Morocco cost him € 400 – which was all the money he had left. The journey to Morocco had cost more than € 1,000.

When the boat was intercepted by police near Cádiz, he thought his dream was over. He was sent to the internment camp at Algeciras. For 40 days, he feared he would be deported back to Senegal. On the 41st day, officials thrust a piece of paper into his hand and ejected him from the camp. The paper was an expulsion notice ordering him to leave Spain immediately and banning him from the country for five years. Moussa has carried it with him since his release. It is all he has.

Awaiting him on the street were Red Cross social workers. With an expulsion order, they explained, he had little chance of being given a work permit. They gave him a bus ticket to Almería.

He has now been here for three months and has not been able to send a single cent to his family. He can only give them a phone call if someone gives him the money. He lives with ten other Senegalese in a rundown house on the outskirts of La Mojonera, overlooking the dirty plastic sheeting of the hothouses. Sharing a 10 m² room with two others, he cannot even pay for the mattress he sleeps on. “My wife does not understand why I am not working,” Moussa says. “She is right. I did not come just to sit around.”

When Moussa left Dakar, he thought it would all be so easy. He would work for a few years in Spain, preferably on a fishing boat. He is a seaman by trade. The plan was to buy a house for his family. Others had worked in Europe and sent money home. “Why shouldn't my family have a better life too?” he had thought.

In 2008, the number of illegal immigrants arriving in Spain by boat was a quarter down from the previous year – but still exceeded 13,000. Because of the tighter controls applied in Spain, the people smugglers now choose other routes: last year, nearly twice as many immigrants landed in Italy and Malta as in 2007.

Apart from the trucks, the Guardia Civil patrol past the La Mojonera intersection every morning. The officers look the job-hunters in the eyes; the job-hunters stare at the ground. But they do not disperse. The police are not a danger early in the morning. They pose a threat only after the day's recruits are in the fields. They then pick up those who didn't find work. Moussa does not leave the house after 8 a.m.

Competition with local labour

Two hundred kilometres north of La Mojonera, Mamadou D. (27) stands outside Úbeda bus station. He is waiting for a landowner looking for olive pickers. He has been here for two weeks now and has still not seen an olive. He spends the day in the grey, draughty, unheated building. At night, he beds down on the pavement, lying on flattened cardboard boxes scavenged from bins and wrapped in a woollen blanket given by a friend. It is a week since he had a shower. People keep their noses shut, when passing by.

Mamadou is one of around 5,000 immigrants looking for work picking olives in Jaen Province. He crossed from Senegal to the Canary Isles two and a half years ago. Picked up by the coast guard, he was sent to an internment centre. On the 41st day, he was taken to the airport. He thought he was being deported but the plane landed in Barcelona, where a Red Cross social worker was waiting for him. He was given a room, told it would be difficult to get a work permit and taught a few words of Spanish. Two weeks later, he was told he had to leave and fend for himself. The accommodation was needed for the next batch of new arrivals from the Canary Isles. He found a bed in a room with two other Senegalese and got a job on a building site.

“It was well paid,” Mamadou reports. He received more than € 1,000 for eight hours six days a week. Each month he sent at least € 200 to his parents, brothers and sisters. But early last year, that stopped. Since then, Mamadou has moved from harvest to harvest, from place to place, looking for a few hours' work. So far in vain.

In a bar in Úbeda, a card on a notice board reads, “Spaniard, experienced, dependable, available for olive harvest, José.” Underneath a telephone number. José is a tall well-built man in his mid-40s and an experienced olive-picker. He recently lost his job with a construction company and is now back in the fields. The union rate for the work in Jaen is € 50 for six and a half hours. “Immigrants are taking the work away from us,” José says. “They work more hours for less money.”

They get € 30 to € 40 a day, cash in hand, no overheads. And for that, they pick olives till sunset. Back in Úbeda is the pavement, back home in Africa a family waiting for a better future. “What are we supposed to do?” a farmer asks. “They are here, are we supposed not to employ them?”

“If I had known what Europe was really like, I would never have come,” Mamadou says. His stomach rumbles. He warms his hands at a fire he has made on the street with a couple of other Africans. “There is no life for us in Europe.”

The disco nights are over

Hugo P. (26) from Paraguay also leads a nomadic life. And he once had it made – or so he thought. In Marbella, playground of the rich and famous, he helped to build a luxury residential complex. On weekends, he would go to the beach and, in the evening, to a disco. Now, he lives in Archena, a dowdy municipality near Murcia, a long way from the sea. “Since my father died, everything has gotten worse,” Hugo says.

He came to Spain because his father needed cancer drugs – drugs he could never have afforded on the wages he earned back home. And even though he sent as much as he could from Spain, his father still had to borrow money. When he died, he left Hugo saddled with thousands of Euros of debt. Not long afterwards, Hugo was made redundant. He found no more work, had to give up his room in a shared flat and slept on the sofa at friends. He no longer went to the disco nor to the beach. Friends who lived illegally in Marbella like him were picked up by the police at discos and dragged out of the internet cafés where they used to call their families and send money. Hugo no longer dared to leave the house.

A friend got him a job on a fruit plantation in Archena, saying: “It depends on you whether you stay.” Once in the field, Hugo understood what his friend had meant. He harvested lemons in a team with five other immigrants; they were paid by the crate. He picked without gloves, thorns bloodying his hands; he ran to the crates with his full bucket and ran back with it empty – never looking up, dizzy from exertion, never stopping. Even so, the others were twice as fast.
After four weeks, Hugo had shed ten kilos.

He has now been in Spain for three years. He dreams of getting a work permit – all he needs is an employer to offer him a regular contract. With papers, he could make a trip home and visit his father's grave.

Streets of no hope

In three months, Moussa has managed to find just one day's work on a tomato plantation. He was allowed to stand in for a sick housemate. When the boss explained what he had to do, it was in broad Andalusian dialect. Moussa did not understand a word. He just watched what the other workers did and copied them. Moussa was fast and focused. He wanted to be better at the work than anyone else. Under the plastic roofing, the temperature rose higher and higher. His back ached, sweat ran into his eyes. He earned € 28 – paid through his sick friend. With it, he bought a prepaid card for his mobile and food for everyone. Now, he is back at the intersection every morning.

One evening, social workers hand out bus tickets in the hostel in Úbeda. There is work in Villanueva del Arzobispo, they say. Mamadou is at the bus station at five in the morning. But even in Villanueva, no one takes him on. His ticket was only for a one way trip and it is 40 kilometres back to Úbeda. Instead of returning there, Mamadou decides to press on to Almería. A friend works in the fields there. Mamadou hopes to find his luck there too. Without success.

Now, Mamadou is on the street every morning in a village near La Mojonera. He sets the alarm on his mobile phone for half past five o'clock. When it sounds, he rolls up the blanket under which he sleeps in a Senegalese friend's living room and slips out of the house. At eight o'clock he is back. He doesn’t dare to show up idly on the street.

He sits on the worn sofa and stares at the TV set. A music video from Senegal is being screened. The song is called “Le chemin de l’espoir” – road of hope – and tells of a young man who sets off for Europe to seek his fortune. Back home, Mamadou would have danced to it.