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The pain in Spain: On May Day, nearly 1 in 5 are jobless, but few seem angry

In Madrid, the workers' day was marked by samba dances, not brick-throwing.

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"Spain is not a country in which public frustration is expressed with marches and demonstrations, like France and Greece," says Florentino Felgueroso, an economics professor at the University of Oviedo and a researcher in the independent think tank Applied Economics Research Foundation, Fedea.

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Professor Felgueroso, who coordinates a multidisciplinary program of labor experts that is proposing measures to boost employment in Spain, cites several factors contributing to the passivity. Many who have recently lost their jobs are immigrants, who shy away from confrontations, or elderly people who have taken early retirement, he says. Another large segment of the jobless is young people, who are cushioned by a family safety net.

Spain's working class also has historical ties to the ruling Socialist party, Felgueroso says. The party of President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was born at the beginning of the previous century out of the trade union movement.

"It's not the government's fault," says Toni Ferre, a coordinator of the union organization in Spain that claims to represent 80 percent of all employees.

Growth fueled by housing bubble

Staggering unemployment rates are not new to Spain, either. It was only after 2001 that jobless rates fell to the single digits. Those economic gains are viewed as largely superficial – the tourism and holiday home construction industries have been particularly vibrant – and to a large extent fueled by funds from the European Union.

Until the recent slowdown, Spain has had one of the fastest-growing economies of industrialized nations. Unlike Germany, France, and Britain, however, Spain has never developed a strong export market.

Spain's economic gains were based on a housing boom. More homes have been built here in the past few years than anywhere else in Europe. In fact, in 2007, the country built more than the rest of the continent combined. That required cheap labor, which was largely supplied by immigrants. In the meantime, Spaniards – like Americans – speculated on what they hoped would be an ever-rising real estate market, Felgueroso says.

When the bubble burst last year, builders started shedding jobs by the thousands. Many were temporary jobs and did not affect native-born Spaniards, Felgueroso says. Most industrial jobs, except for some in the automotive industry, have so far been largely protected.

The real estate-fueled economic growth model has been discredited, but the country has yet to embark on the drastic structural changes that, economists say, are necessary to provide long term solutions.

"We were a model to follow. Now we are the opposite," Felgueroso says. "It's as if we use to eat seven meals a day and now we are fasting."

Many want to emulate the export-driven countries of northern Europe, where more investment is devoted to research and education. But adopting such changes will take years, which explains why Spain's recession may be more profound and take longer to recover.

Meanwhile, Spain's relaxed approach to the recession could change. Social unrest is "on the horizon," the leading newspaper in Spain said in a recent editorial.

"If officials and companies don't put an end to the bloodshed of jobs, we will react decisively," says Mr. Ferre, the union leader.