Positive outcome for non-EU workers’ voluntary return programme

The government recently presented the results of the Non-EU Foreign Workers’ Voluntary Return Programme. The programme provides for the early lump-sum payment of unemployment contributory benefits to non-EU foreign workers returning to their home country. Despite some positive results, the trade unions criticised the government for not accepting their proposal for a moratorium under which unemployed non-EU foreign workers can renew their residency card in Spain.

Features of voluntary return programme

Under Royal Decree 4/2008 of 19 September (in Spanish, 40Kb PDF), the Non-EU Foreign Workers’ Voluntary Return Programme allows for the early lump-sum payment of unemployment contributory benefits to non-EU foreign workers who are voluntarily returning to their home country. The benefits are granted in two payments: 40% of the total amount is paid in Spain, and the remaining 60% is granted to the individual when they return to their home country after a period of 30 days. The programme, which was approved a year ago, is voluntary and, according to the government, aims to alleviate the situation of one of the groups most negatively affected by the economic crisis. In addition, individuals receiving the benefit may be offered the possibility of returning home together with their family, through a travel-finance assistance programme.

Eligibility criteria

The programme only applies to non-EU foreign nationals from countries with which Spain has signed bilateral social security agreements. These agreements guarantee workers’ social rights and enable the payments made in Spain to be calculated along with those that are made subsequently in the home country, with the aim of guaranteeing future pensions. However, the option to extend this programme to other countries is also allowed for, provided that these countries are deemed to have adequate mechanisms to guarantee workers’ social protection.

Aim of reducing unemployment

Another significant feature of the programme is that the participants cannot return to Spain before the end of the three-year term. This is to avoid situations that contravene the main objective of the programme – namely, to slow the increase in unemployment through the return of unemployed migrants. It is worth remembering that the measure was approved in September 2008, when the economic recession began to hit Spain. In fact, the third quarter of 2008 marked the first time since the start of the global crisis that the Spanish economy began to contract, declining by 0.2%. Unemployment rose to 11%, with the unemployment rate among the country’s foreign population standing at 17%. According to the Spanish Labour Force Survey (Encuesta de Población Activa, EPA), in the third quarter of 2008, unemployment had increased among the foreign population by 623,000 persons over the last year – or by 64% in relative terms.

The programme was therefore introduced at a time marked by the onset of an economic crisis and rising unemployment among the foreign population. As a result, measures have been introduced to help reduce the supply of foreign labour – such measures include reducing the list of hard-to-fill professions, which determines the type of jobs that the foreign population can cover, and reforming the immigration law approved earlier this month, which set tougher conditions for reuniting migrant families.

Results of assessment

One year after the programme was approved, the Minister for Work and Immigration, Celestino Corbacho, has presented a positive assessment of the programme to the Immigration Policy Delegate Committee (Comisión Delegada para Políticas de Inmigración). The results show that 10% of the target population have taken up the offer, with 8,724 applications being made, mostly in the regions of Spain’s capital Madrid, Catalonia in the northeast and Valencia in the east. The average lump-sum amount paid to the participants is about €9,148 and around €52 million has already been paid out since the plan was launched.

In terms of the recipients’ countries of origin, the South American countries predominate – especially Ecuador (44% of recipients) and Columbia (18%), followed by Argentina (10%), Peru (9%), Brazil (5%), Chile (4%) and Uruguay (4%).

Regarding family members covered by the programme, the report shows that a total of 3,706 individuals have benefitted, with more than €3 million being given in travel-finance assistance.

Social partner views

Based on these figures, the Ministry of Work and Immigration has concluded that the programme has ‘reasonably met its objectives’, stating that 10% of the target population seems to be in line with the initial forecasts. However, the main trade unions – the General Workers’ Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT) and the Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO) – expressed their regret that the government had not accepted their proposal for a moratorium under which migrants without work can renew their residency card in Spain. The trade unions contend that there is a high number of non-EU foreigners who are unemployed and do not wish to access the programme, but who are unable to renew their residency card.

Pablo Sanz de Miguel, CIREM Foundation

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