Europe's guest workers ask, 'Where are our pensions?'

As the US and EU eye new guest-worker initiatives, returned Spanish laborers try to collect retirement money.

Enrique Aviles Ruiz is ready to collect his due – from four countries. After laboring as a farmer in his native Spain and as a guest worker in Germany, France, and Belgium, he's now navigating the labyrinth of international bureaucratic and legal systems to receive the pensions he is due.

"I worked hard and I'm getting nothing," he says ruefully in a strong Andalusian dialect.

Known in Spain as retornados, these laborers planned to return to their native towns and cities after working abroad for years, even decades, and live out the rest of their lives in peace. Instead, many are finding the financial difficulties of returning greater than they could have imagined.

While the exceptional number of countries where Mr. Ruiz worked complicates his case, millions of former guest workers, in Spain and around the world, are in a similar situation. Now hitting retirement age, they are being haunted by missing paystubs they unwittingly discarded 30 years ago, the overlap of multiple legal systems, and – in some cases – governments that wrongly refuse to pay up.

With both Washington and Brussels considering new guest-worker initiatives, the situation of these retornados is a reminder that the challenges of such programs do not end with returning the workers home. Readjustment issues have reverberated from Turkey to Portugal among the countries that were main suppliers of European guest workers in the 1950s and '60s. Across the Atlantic in Mexico, more than 40 years after the bracero guest worker program with the United States was canceled, former laborers there are still fighting to collect their pensions.

Difficulty obtaining pensions is a recurring structural issue, and inherent to the complications of transnational bureaucracy, says Philip Martin, an agricultural economist at the University of California at Davis who's studied migrant labor.

Even for an American living in the US, he says, it's common to have to make multiple trips to Social Security to clear up problems. Thus, it's not surprising that someone who has worked abroad will face even more difficulties.

"For almost all pensions systems there's no checking on the wage records of Social Security systems until you apply for benefits, and many systems do not allow pension checks to be sent abroad," says Dr. Martin.

Manuel Rojas Castro, a lawyer based in Germany who for 31 years worked for the Spanish embassy there as a legal counselor to immigrants, goes further, maintaining that European countries are often biased against guest workers, denying them their rights.

"The emigrants lose rights because of lack of knowledge from below, and discrimination from above," says Mr. Castro. "The pension system for emigrants in Europe is very complicated because you need to know the law of each country and the communal law, which is enormous."

In the case of Spain, for example, three types of law can hold jurisdiction: Spanish law, the laws of the host country where the emigrant worked, and either European communal law or a bilateral agreement. "There is a communal currency, the euro, but there does not exist a standard euro pension," Castro notes.

Since his retirement from public service in the mid-1990s, Castro has counseled thousands of Spanish former guest workers, with pension collection being the most typical problem. If cases cannot be resolved through negotiations, he takes them to the relevant national court and, when necessary, to the European Court of Justice. Settlement amounts vary, he says. The most he's won for a client is €38,000 ($51,000).

Spain has a particularly strong contingent of returned workers. At the peak of the exodus in the 1960s until the guest-worker programs were mostly halted following the oil crisis of 1973, an estimated 100,000 Spaniards left their country per year, most to work in Europe's richer lands. Some stayed a few months, others for decades.

The return flood began in the mid-1970s, moving back into houses they had built with money made abroad – an achievement that would have been unlikely had they stayed home.

"Many of them returned successful, in the sense they achieved something they could not have in Spain," says F. Javier García Castaño, an anthropology professor at the University of Granada.

But retornados often felt out of place in their hometowns and were unaware of their rights to collect benefits in either country. In 1988, one retornado recognized the need and founded Grenada's Association of Returned Emigrants (AGER). Today, up to 200 people a day come seeking its services. It is the oldest and – with a membership of 16,000 – the largest of more than a dozen such organizations across Spain.

On a recent night, Ruiz – who had first brought his case to the association over a year ago – had a chance to see an attendant. From a row of cubicles labeled by countries in which emigrants worked, he settled for Germany, where he worked the longest.

Not only are there many of the receiving country's individual laws to sort through, he has no records of the work abroad.

Such challenges are common, says association president Rafael Leon Galindó. "Many had the papers and then threw them away thinking they don't have any value," he says. "Now they come and say, 'I was in France for five years. Please let me have my pension.' "

But Ruiz's case has a happy ending. The attendant tracks down the necessary information, though the yield is minimal: a pension of €30 per year on average.

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