Borders, labour impacts, and union responses: case of Spain.

Author:Stobart, Luke
Position:Case study


Spain is an acute example of severe yet permissive border control where institutional frameworks ensure that migrant labour inexpensively fills existing labour shortages and highly exploitative "niches," while aiding a broader flexibilization strategy. Through a review of mainly Spanish research by trade union, industrial relations, and immigration specialists on three major migrant employment sectors, the article shows that impacts on employment and wage levels have been limited, despite claims to the contrary, although they have been deeper in those employment sectors with reduced legal protection and union organization. It concludes that while the Spanish case gives support to the No Borders position, it also exposes the need for greater engagement with migrant workers by the trade unions and rejects the major Spanish union federations' recent advocacy of "controlled immigration."


L'Espagne est un exemple aigu d'un controle rigoureux quoique permissif des frontieres ou les cadres institutionnels font en sorte que les travailleurs migrants comblent a peu de frais les penuries de main-d'oeuvre existantes et les creneaux susceptibles d'une forte exploitation, tout en facilitant une strategie de d'assouplissement etendue. A travers un examen de la recherche principalement espagnole sur les trois principaux secteurs de l'emploi des migrants par des experts en syndicalisme, relations industrielles et immigration, l'auteur montre qu'en depit d'affirmations a contrario les effets sur les niveaux d'emploi et les salaires ont ete limites, bien qu'ils se soient fait sentir plus profondement dans les secteurs de l'emploi ou la protection juridique et l'organisation syndicale demeurent insuffisantes. En guise de conclusion, l'auteur soutient que si le cas de l'Espagne conforte la position du mouvement No Border, il fait neanmoins ressortir la necessite d'un plus grand engagement aupres des travailleurs migrants de la part des syndicats et va a l'encontre du plaidoyer recent des grandes federations syndicales espagnoles en faveur de >.


In this article I will attempt to add to the debate on the validity of the No Borders thesis by analyzing a polemical area among progressive analysts: the impact of controlled migration on labour conditions--of both migrant and non-migrant workers. (1) My contribution will take the form of a national case study, that of the Spanish State, (2) in which a combination of strictness and permissiveness in border control has combined with specific legislative constraints to shape the labour and self-organization of migrants, inserted into an unfavourable context of extensive informal employment and precarious labour relations. This, as we shall explore, has been a factor contributing to growing anti-immigrant attitudes in Spanish society and even large-scale racist attacks. In response, a significant level of debate has emerged within the trade unions and the mainstream and radical left about the effects of migration on the poorer classes.

My method shall be to contextualize the subject within the actuality of migrant employment and policy and then critically interpret several recent Spanish studies dealing with impacts on pay and employment. These include a study on the trade unions and migration, "Los sindicatos ante la inmigracion," directed by Carmen Gonzalez-Enriquez for the government-attached Observatorio Permanente de la Inmigracion (Permanent Observatory of Immigration, OPI) which concludes with a negative assessment of the effect of migrants on the employment and conditions of non-migrants and supports the two main union federations' current defence of "controlled immigration." (3) I also explore research by Miguel Pajares, the ex-coordinator for migrant services (CITE) at the Catalan Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) federation, which, in contrast, identified a negligible negative effect. (4)

In accord with Pajares, I shall demonstrate, through interpretation of the range of sources, that the negative effects associated with migrant employment are exaggerated; and that controls, rather than benefiting the socio-economic conditions of working people, allow for the super-exploitation of migrant labour and facilitate the undercutting of labour as a whole. I end by reaffirming that migrant labour is itself a key subject in determining labour outcomes, and advocating locating the organization of migrant labour at the centre of trade-union strategies.

Migrant Labour in Spain

Large-scale immigration into Spain is a relatively new phenomenon (at least under capitalism). In a similar way to other Mediterranean countries (and Ireland), Spain was until recently a net source of migration--with large numbers of people emigrating to northern Europe and other regions. In 1996, of the total population only 1.5 per cent (600,000 persons) were foreign-born, of which half were from other European countries. Linked to Spain's relatively substantial economic growth (of 4.1 per cent annually between 1996 and 2000; and 3.1 per cent from 2001 to 2005), (5) the foreign population has increased markedly to currently represent around 12 per cent of the total Spanish population. Within the Spanish workforce, migrant workers represent 14.3 per cent (2.9 million) of the total. (6) This is a relatively quick and pronounced transformation for an economically developed country by today's standards.

A large number of foreign residents in Spain are EU citizens (between a third and a half of the total foreign population in 2005 (7)), of which a significant group are relatively wealthy, often retired citizens from northern Europe--in 2005 British and German citizens were numerically the fifth and seventh largest foreign collectives in Spain. (8) These immigrants are normally not treated as such in discussions on the topic in Spain, although their numbers are included in media and academic studies on the extension of migration and migrant labour in Spain. In this study I shall follow standard Spanish practice and not refer to western Europeans when I refer to "migrants" or "immigrants," although I am conscious that this creates definitional issues, for example a possible reinforcing of perceptions of migrants as "low wage" and "low skilled." When I use figures that include Europeans, I shall refer to the population in question as "foreign."

Despite the continued arrival of these more affluent groups on Spanish territory, Spain's foreign population has diversified to progressively integrate more migrants from the "Global South" and Eastern Europe. Consequently, in 2005, the first four largest groups of resident non-Spaniards were, in order of size, Moroccans (505,400 persons), Ecuadorians (491,800), Romanians (314,300), and Colombians (268,900.) (9)

Before the current crisis, which has been especially severe in the Spanish case, migration into Spain was frequently presented as an economic success story in both international and Spanish political, business, and media circles. Several studies have shown migrant labour to have been fundamental to Spain's economic expansion. Spanish GDP per capita increased by 2.6 per cent between 1995 and 2005, and an investigation by the Caixa de Catalunya bank found that without migration, GDP per capita would have contracted by -1.17 per cent. The economic office of Spanish president Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has estimated that migrant workers (and their contributions to the social-security system) had produced as much as 51.6 per cent of economic growth from 2001 to 2005. (10) These are dramatic figures by any standards.

Nevertheless Spanish economic strategy had centred on traditional low-capital-investment sectors (such as construction, agriculture, and tourism), in which migrant labour has played a significant role. Since the collapse in 2008 of an enormous housing bubble, which coincided with the international banking crisis, these sectors have encountered serious difficulties and have shed large numbers of jobs. This is especially so in the construction sector. One consequence has been that migrant unemployment rose by 64 per cent in the year before the last quarter of 2008. (11) A year later (in mid-2009) 28 per cent of all "foreigners" were unemployed--a notably higher figure than for "natives" (16 per cent). (12)

Even prior to the downturn the migrant population was in a precarious socio-economic position. Most of its members arrived shortly after a successful drive (initiated by the social-democratic PSOE government of Felipe Gonzalez in the late 1980s and early 1990s) to "flexibilize" large sections of the workforce, as a result of which Spain is among the countries with the highest proportion of "temporary" employment among the states included in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It is also a country with a large (and officially tolerated) underground economy which is estimated as accounting for 25 per cent of Spain's Gross National Product (GNP). (13) It is into the above employment context that migrant labour has been incorporated.

Real differences that exist between the migrant workforce and the Spanish-born workforce have been exploited by politicians taking a populist stance (in particular those from the right-wing Popular Party, or PP) and sections of the media. This has encouraged a negative sentiment towards immigration in Spanish society. In recent years, monthly surveys on public opinion by the sociological research body, the Centro de Investigaciones Sociologicas (CIS), have frequently identified "immigration" to be one of the biggest national "problems." At times, such as in September 2006 when a sizable number of undocumented migrants arrived by boat in the Canary Islands, it figured as the number one problem by 60 per cent of those interviewed. (14)

There have also been cases of substantial racist violence in different points of the peninsula. The worst example was a local pogrom against North...

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