Trade unions examine immigration

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Spanish trade unions are increasingly interested in the issue of immigration, against the backdrop of a more restrictive government policy on the issue. Two trade union studies published in early 2003 focus on the changing nature of immigration to Spain and the contribution of immigrants to the Spanish economy. Immigrants are net contributors to social security funds and generate between 2.5% and 4% of GDP, according to the studies, while women coming to Spain to work in domestic service make up a rising proportion of immigrants. Furthermore, an increasing number of immigrants are using trade union services.

In early 2003, two trade union reports have shed light on some important aspects of labour immigration into Spain, an issue which is currently prominent in public debate and government policy (ES0209204F).

Changes in characteristics of immigration

The 2003 annual report of the Information Centre for Foreign Workers (Centro de Información para Trabajadores Extranjeros, CITE) of the Catalan regional organisation of the Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (Comisiones Obreras) examines immigration on the basis of the records of immigrants who contacted trade union service departments in 2001 and 2002. It finds five changes in the characteristics of immigration, as follows:

  • there is a rising trend in the number of women immigrants, linked to employment in domestic service and hotels/catering (see also Inmigración femenina en el Sur de Europa, AA.VV, Monografía Revista Papers, Departamento de Sociología). This is due to two factors - family reunification, and the increasing demand for domestic services (housework and care for children and the elderly). The ageing of the Spanish population is a powerful factor in promoting immigration, in accordance with the 'family-based' Mediterranean type of welfare state. The increase in family reunification can be seen as an element of stability and permanence for immigrants, and the proportion of immigrants who are married has risen from 36% to 59%. However, a considerable problem for family reunification is the price of housing and the lack of rented accommodation (ES0302106F), so immigrants are often forced to share flats;
  • with regard to the age of immigrants, the largest group is those aged 26-40, followed by 41-65. Family reunification has in recent years led to an increase in the number of persons under the age of 18, which has in turn led to a new demand for schooling;
  • immigration from South America now exceeds immigration from North Africa, except in Catalonia, where the latter is still higher. There has also been an increase in immigration from Eastern Europe;
  • trade union services have recorded an increase in the number of workers without employment contracts. The percentage rose from 49% to 53% between 2001 and 2002, a fact which is associated with an expansion of the 'underground' economy and unstable employment in construction, agriculture, hotels and catering, domestic service, cleaning and textiles. Immigrants tend to occupy the low-paid segments of the labour market in most cases. However, 53% of the immigrants contacting the unions' services have higher education qualifications; and
  • there has been an increase in the use of trade union services by immigrants. The number of queries has doubled since 1999, which may be seen as a reflection of stability and of an interest by immigrants in collective action. Illegal immigrants, however, who represent a large proportion, do not tend to use trade union services.

Economic contribution of immigrants

Another recent study, carried out by CC.OO's national confederal technical bureau, attempts to evaluate the economic contribution of immigrants (Informe sobre la contribución económica de los inmigrantes, Gabinete Confederal CC.OO, Madrid). According to this report, the immigrants who work in Spain generate between 2.5% and 4% of GDP. Furthermore, immigrants contribute 2.5% of the social security budget for common contingencies, which comes to EUR 1,468 million per year. An exercise to legalise immigrants conducted in 2002 (ES0302205F) was reflected in an increase in the number of immigrant social security contributors from 627,795 in January 2002 (3.9% of the total) to 792,004 in July of the same year (4.08% of the total).

According to the report, immigrants are net contributors to the social security budget: they contribute more than they receive in retirement pensions. Due to the young average age of the immigrant population, the social security funds make hardly any payments to them.

Another indicator of the economic importance of immigrants is that they contribute 1.6% of total personal income tax (Impuesto por Rendimiento de las Personas Físicas, IRPF) receipts, states the CC.OO study. In this case, however, it is difficult to determine whether the benefits that immigrants receive from public funds compensate for or even exceed their tax contributions. A priori, it may be that immigrants working in low-pay sectors could obtain the services paid for by IRPF and the social benefits of the welfare state. However, the weakness of public policies and of the instruments for social integration of immigrants often prevent their access to universal public services due to ignorance or lack of integration, or simply because many of them work in the underground economy without the employment contracts that provide social citizenship rights.

The study suggests that the funds devoted to the immigrant population are less than their contribution (see also El impacto de la inmigración en la economía y la sociedad receptora, Carlota Solé, Anthopos, Barcelona, 2001). This imbalance is greatest in social security. The number of foreign social security contributors is 823,779, of whom 181,213 are citizens of the European Union (EU). This group already represents 4% of all contributors, and according to the Ministry of Labour, 45% of new social security contributors are immigrants, which indicates the dynamism that immigration has given to the social protection system.

Replacement of foreign immigration by domestic migration?

The topical nature of immigration issues is highlighted by a current debate about the centre-right People's Party (Partido Popular, PP) government's essentially restrictive policy towards immigration (ES0209204F). Some commentators and politicians believe that this restrictive policy reflects an attempt by the government to replace foreign immigration with domestic migration of people from the regions of Andalusia and Extremadura to the Spanish industrial zones.

The President of the government of Extremadura, Juan Carlos Rodriguez Ibarra, recently claimed that this wish is one of the reasons why the government has refused to repeal part of its controversial 2002 unemployment insurance reform (ES0206210F) that dealt with the special agricultural benefit scheme. The government has withdrawn most of the reform, following protests (ES0212201N), but not all of its changes to the agricultural scheme (ES0302201N), though its cost is very small in relation to other rights that have been restored. The previous Rural Employment Plan ('Plan de Empleo Rural', PER) has allowed thousands of casual farm workers in Andalusia and Extremadura to remain in their home towns in jobs that are necessarily seasonal in nature. Mr Ibarra claims that for the government it is more comfortable to 'have a neighbour from Andalusia or Extremadura than one from Nigeria or Colombia'.


Immigration is an increasingly important phenomenon in Spain. The trade unions have had an ambiguous policy towards it. On the one hand, they have expressed solidarity with foreign workers and developed support services to defend their labour and social rights, and made efforts to help towards their social integration (ES9904214F). On the other hand, certain union quarters have seen immigration as an element of competition for jobs and social services, and have therefore called for protection of the domestic labour market. However, today immigrants in Spain tend to fill the jobs in the 'secondary' segment of the labour market. There is a great demand for labour in low-paid sectors such as agriculture, hotels and catering and domestic services. For these jobs the supply of national labour is tending to decline due to the ageing of the population and the preference for better qualified jobs with better working conditions. (Antonio Martín Artiles, QUIT-UAB)

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