Tuesday, May 18, 2010

spain's jobless find it hard to go back to the farm

NYTimes | During Spain’s construction boom, Antonio Rivera Romero happily traded long hours and backbreaking labor in the fields for the better-regulated building trades, earning four times as much as a bricklayer. He took out a mortgage and enlarged his house on a quiet side street in this small city in southern Spain.

Now, with the construction jobs gone, Mr. Rivera is behind on his bank payments and eager to return to the farmwork he left behind.

But Spaniards have been largely shut out of those jobs. Those bent over rows of strawberries under plastic greenhouse sheeting or climbing ladders in the midday sun are now almost all foreigners: Romanians, Poles, Moroccans, many of them in Spain legally.

“The farmers here don’t want us,” Mr. Rivera said with a defeated shrug.

Local officials and union leaders say Mr. Rivera has it right. Farmers have been reluctant to take Spanish workers back — unsure whether they will work as hard as the foreigners who have been picking their crops, sometimes for a decade now.

So far, only 5 percent of the pickers this year are Spaniards, said Diego Cañamero, the head of one of Spain’s largest labor organizations, the Field Workers Union, or S.O.C. He said the union was working to keep tempers from flaring and to persuade farmers to employ local people again, but with little success.

“There is a sense of bewilderment among the Spanish workers,” he said. “They say: Why do they let people come 5,000 miles, when we need the jobs?”

The unemployment rate in the Andalusia region is now 27 percent, the highest in Spain except for the Canary Islands. Spaniards have always been resilient, helping out one another in hard economic times. But these days entire families like that of Mr. Rivera and his wife, who have five working-age children — most at home — are jobless. Unemployment benefits go only so far, and for those who have house or car payments, not nearly far enough.

Mr. Rivera, 50, gets 420 euros a month, about $530. His mortgage takes up half of that, he said. His wife, Encarnación Román Casillas, 49, started going to the local soup kitchen.