Chinese work ethic tires Spanish

Losing business to immigrants, Spanish shoe workers in Elche recently set fire to Chinese warehouses.

When Spanish workers in Elche, a longtime shoe-producing town in the coastal province of Alicante, set fire to several Chinese shoe warehouses three weeks ago, many feared that the incidents were motivated by anti-Chinese racism - a troubling sign of things to come. Placards scrawled with phrases like, "No Chinese!" and "Stop immigration!" at a protest six days after the vandalism fueled this perception.

But others suggest that the incidents have less to do with racism than with changes to Spain's economy.

As Spain struggles to become an economic power in Europe, immigrant laborers are increasingly coming into conflict with native workers who approach work and the workplace with very different attitudes.

Although the first Chinese immigrants arrived here in the early 20th century, their numbers have grown rapidly over the past two decades. Today it is estimated that there are between 50,000 and 100,000 living in Spain.

They may be causing resentment, however, not because of their numbers (there are far more North African and Latin American immigrants), but because many Spaniards feel that their economic practices threaten age-old social customs, employment norms, and labor relations in Spain.

This nativist anxiety is exacerbated by larger concerns over changing work patterns both in Spain, where regulations may even encroach upon the sacred siesta, and across Europe, where debates are brewing about standardizing Sunday and late-night work hours.

Tough to compete

In particular, many Spaniards are frustrated by the increasing control Chinese immigrants have taken of grocery stores and other small businesses traditionally owned by Spaniards. These days, most have Chinese owners who keep the shops open on Sundays and late into the night.

Becaro Brothers is an exception; it is one of only a few grocery stores in La Latina neighborhood still run by Spaniards. "This store has been operating for more than a century and a half," says its owner Rosa, who emphasizes that it was always family owned, even when it sold just olive oil, butter, or chorizo. Rosa is set to retire in nine years, but she doesn't think her business will last that long.

"In the last year I've been approached at least five times by the Chinese, begging me to sell them the store." Although she would prefer to keep the business in her family, she notes that, "You have to work hard to make a store like this run, and hardly anyone can do it anymore, except the Chinese."

It's a feeling echoed at one of the neighborhood's other Spanish-owned groceries, La Gran Perla. "The Chinese work round the clock," says its owner, "never stopping for afternoon siestas or holidays or Sundays, and they're putting us out of business."

The Chinese, however, contend that they are simply practicing good business.

In an underground Chinese shopping corridor beneath Madrid's Plaza de España, Susana, a young mother from China, recalls why she immigrated. She came to Spain 12 years ago, she says, "because it looked beautiful in pictures."

Today, she runs a small grocery store with her family in Móstoles, on the outskirts of Madrid. "In the store we work hard," she explains. "If you work in Spain, you make money."

Manolo, a well-dressed Chinese man who says he took his name from the first Spaniard who befriended him, freely admits that it was economic opportunity that brought him to Spain. "I prefer China, but the money here is too good. Everyone needs us. We work hard, night and day, no holidays. We work hard now so we can return to China later and enjoy life there with the money we make here."

For many Spanish, that kind of attitude clashes with traditional values that privilege family, friends, and leisure over moneymaking. But those values are also being undermined by the demands of Spain's attempts to enter the global marketplace.

In Elche, for example, about 10 percent of the shoe businesses are owned by Chinese, who have not only extended work hours, but have increased production and cut workers.

The Spanish shoemakers, on the other hand, have watched their production fall 12 percent and their number of workers drop 4 percent in the past year. It is that desperation, say observers, that drove Spanish workers to attack the Chinese businesses.

Economic frustration, or racism?

After the Elche attacks, Spain's minister of foreign affairs met immediately with the Chinese ambassador to assure him that the government would take all measures to ensure the safety of all people in Spain. And the Chinese Embassy here quickly set up a hotline in Spain for Chinese to call in case of discrimination or attack. Still, many deny that race was a driving factor behind the vandalism.

A spokeswoman for the UGT, one of Spain's biggest labor unions, says that "the UGT has an office that determines the maximum number of work hours for its members, according to the Law for Foreign Workers. And because some foreigners, like the Chinese, are violating these norms, the laws are being renegotiated by the unions, the government, small-business organizations, and immigrant organizations. The goal is to shut down the underground businesses that do severe damage to the legitimate ones." The official, who declined to give her name, notes that the "problem is not the Chinese in particular, but immigration as a general phenomenon, and how it affects labor in Spain. The Chinese aren't a problem any more than any other foreign population here."

Chinese here take the Elche attacks seriously, but see it as an isolated incident. If anything, say observers, Chinese residents may not be mindful enough of lingering discrimination. For now, their businesses are thriving, and any problems they encounter are, in their view, market-driven.

Tony, a member of the Association for Chinese in Spain, shares the view of many of his fellow immigrants. "The events in Elche had nothing to do with the factories being Chinese. It was the result of an economic problem, and it was inevitable."

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