The social partners and economic immigration into Spain

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In 1999, Spanish immigration policy is under debate. The policy aims basically at recruiting manpower to fill niches in the labour market and/or at offering flexibility and reducing labour costs in certain sectors. It is therefore seen as coinciding with the interests of employers. Nevertheless, the government has taken a series of initiatives to regularise the status of illegal immigrants, whilst the trade unions have shown supportive attitudes towards immigrant workers and have mounted campaigns to promote their social integration.

The question of immigration into Spain is set within the framework of an increasingly international flow of human resources. Spain has become a host country for immigrants since the mid-1980s, though foreign residents represent only 1.5% of the total population. According to official figures from the Ministry of the Interior, there were 609,813 legal foreign residents in Spain on 31 December 1997, of whom 54.5% were from the Member States of the European Union. In addition, there were an estimated 150,000 illegal immigrants. If trends in immigration are analysed by country of origin, a sharp increase in the "third-world" component is revealed over the last few years, with Morocco, China, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Argentina and the Philippines as the main non-EU countries of origin. There is also a progressive increase in female immigration from outside the EU, with women making up 44.8% of the total on 31 December 1997.

Non-EU workers are concentrated in five branches of economic activity: domestic service, catering, agriculture, construction and retail. Domestic service employs over 90% of non-EU workers, and is a clearly urban phenomenon. These figures reflect the segmentation of the labour market by ethnic group. Immigrants are relegated to the sectors with the worst working conditions and accept work in the informal economy because of their legal vulnerability. They also replace Spanish workers in socially low-status activities for which there is no available Spanish labour despite high unemployment - such as casual agricultural labour and domestic work - or they supplement Spanish workers, as in the case of the increase in certain subsidiary occupations or tasks. In certain cases there is "positive discrimination" in favour of immigrants, with "special working conditions" that involve great exploitation and savings in labour costs for the employers. Immigrants are highly concentrated in the small-scale labour-intensive sectors such as textiles and clothing, in which the large supply of immigrant labour has been the key to survival.

Spanish immigration policy

In addition to general factors that lead to the segmentation of the labour market, discrimination in access to employment and poor working conditions, the position of immigrants in the labour market is conditioned by immigration policy. The legal framework defines the "field of opportunities" for the integration of immigrants into the labour market, which is known as "institutional discrimination".

In Spain there was no immigration policy until the enactment of Organic Law 7/1985 on the Rights and Freedoms of Foreigners in Spain - commonly known as the Aliens' Law (Ley de Extranjería) - only six months before Spain joined the EEC. The Aliens' Law and its Regulation (RD 119/1986) establish the procedure for aliens to enter, reside and work in Spain. In order to work legally, the alien must obtain a work permit of limited duration. In order to obtain this permit, aliens must have an offer of an employment contract. In studying applications for work permits, the authorities also take into account the level of unemployment among Spanish workers in the proposed occupation and in the geographical area concerned. The temporary nature of the permits means that immigrants are strongly dependent on their employers, since non-renewal of the contract means the loss of legal status and the risk of expulsion from the country.

In order to deal with the increasing number of illegal immigrants, the government has carried out three separate initiatives since 1985 designed to regularise the status of those who could demonstrate a certain "degree of integration and settlement". The first two (in 1985 and 1991/2) were aimed at bringing to light the thousands of immigrants who were not represented in the statistics. However, in practice neither initiative managed to lift the immigrants out of their illegal situation, since it proved extremely difficult to renew their work and residence permits. Only 64% of those regularised in 1991 had maintained their status two years later. In order to remedy this situation, a new Regulation governing the Aliens' Law was passed in 1996 and a special new regularisation procedure was introduced for aliens who had previously had a work permit. The most important innovation in this reform was an amendment of the previous system of residence and work permits through the introduction of a "permanent work permit" for foreigners who had resided legally in Spain for six years. This new permit was an attempt to go beyond the idea of the immigrant as a worker who is merely "passing through", and instead focuses entirely on the need to obtain a valid employment contract.

In accordance with the national employment situation, an annual quota of workers has been established since 1993 to the present day as a mechanism for regulating non-Community immigration into Spain. This policy recognises that Spain is a host country for immigration. The policy of quotas offers a maximum number of permits per year to work in activities that - despite the alarming unemployment figures - cannot be filled by the Spanish workforce, mainly in domestic service, construction and agriculture. For 1998 the quota of permits was set at 28,000 for the whole of Spain. The Minister of Labour, Manuel Pimentel, recently stated that Spain is beginning to suffer from a shortage of labour and that more immigrants are needed to cover vacancies in certain sectors, mainly agriculture and construction. Nevertheless, rather than acting as an instrument for controlling new immigrant workers, the quotas have in fact served to regularise the situation of immigrants who were already residing illegally in Spain.

Since late 1997 there has been a serious debate about amending the Aliens' Law, based on several proposals for reform that have been put before parliament. Although there seems to be a consensus in political circles that the Aliens' Law is outdated, there is no agreement yet on whether or not this is a priority issue and even less on the extent of the reforms to be made.

Position of the social partners

The standpoints of the Spanish trade union confederations, UGT and CC.OO, on immigration contrast with those of other European unions in the post-war period, according to studies by Cachón (see "sources" below). From a very early date they have consistently adopted supportive attitudes. Special organisations - UGT's "guide centres for immigrants and refugees" and CC.OO's "information centres for foreign workers" (CITE s) - have assisted immigrants with their specific problems. Furthermore, action has been taken to foster the integration of immigrants into the labour market and society at large, and the unions have played a very active role in negotiations with the government on immigration policy, which they consider obsolete. The unions have also taken specific action in the labour market by organising awareness campaigns about immigrants for Spanish workers, by organising vocational training for immigrants and by channelling claims of discrimination. Other action has focused on developing anti-discrimination policies in collective bargaining and in company practice and including non-discrimination clauses in collective agreements. However, for the moment few agreements include such clauses, and they are notably absent in the sectors with most immigrant workers.

On the other hand, the use of immigrant workers who receive low wages has given companies - especially small ones - a great degree of flexibility in their human resources and employment strategies, which allows them to reduce costs in a situation of growing competitiveness. The president of the Catalan employers' association Foment del Treball, Joan Rosell, arguably recognised this in the press when he stated that immigrants occupy the lowest-paid jobs.


Spain is very far from the immigrant recruitment policies that characterised certain west European countries some decades ago. The changes caused by post-industrial society have led to a change in the nature of the demand for labour. However, despite the generally restrictive immigration policies applied in all countries of the European Union, the Spanish case clearly shows that the doors are still open for certain categories of immigrant workers that are required by the labour market.

Immigrants into Spain are totally subject to the dictates of the labour market, and integration into the host society is a secondary objective. They enjoy rights only if they obtain a job that cannot be filled by Spanish workers, or have a direct family link with someone else who has already done so. The need to regulate immigration to fill niches in the labour market and to provide flexible and cheap workers for certain sectors has inspired Spanish immigration policy and has guided the attitude of employers.

It is hardly possible to maintain an immigration policy that reduces immigrants to temporary workers subject to economic conditions by reinforcing barriers to citizenship, because the reality shows that an increasing number of immigrants plan to settle in Spain. The social tension caused by the gap between the regulations on the one hand and the reality on the other may therefore have major repercussions in the medium term. The effect of the new Regulation governing the Aliens' Law of 1996 and the introduction of the "permanent work permit" will have to be studied. Without doubt, this new permit will make immigrants less dependent on employers since their legal status - and therefore their ability to reside in Spain - will not completely rely on having a work contract. This will make it easier for immigrant workers to claim their rights and fight discrimination and exploitation.

The trade unions have reacted promptly in stressing the unity of interest between Spanish workers and aliens. However, it should not be forgotten that although the two groups compete mostly in different labour markets - the formal and the informal - the undesired impact of immigration resides in the fact that it may threaten the achievements and labour conditions won by Spanish workers. This may lead to hostility towards the immigrant population.

From the point of view of employers, the reform of the labour market may bring the rights of immigrants closer to those of Spanish workers, which will make them less attractive as a reserve force. (Carlota Solé and Sonia Parella, Centre d'Estudis sobre Inmigració i Minories Ètniques-UAB)

Sources:"Marco institucional de la discriminación y tipos de inmigrantes en el mercado de trabajo en España", L Cachón, Revista de Investigaciones Sociológicas, núm. 69 (1995); "Los sindicatos españoles y la inmigración", L Cachón, Migraciones, núm 4 (1998); "La inmigración inesperada", A Izquierdo, Madrid, Trotta (1996); "Indicadores de la inmigración y el asilo en España", Observatorio Permanente de la Inmigración, núm. 3, noviembre 1998; "Discriminación racial en el mercado de trabajo", C Solé, Madrid, CES (1995).

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