Spain’s disposable workforce

Studies that show exploitation is rife in the workplace are supported by workers' personal stories

Joseba Elola
Manuel, a former security guard, went without pay for six months.
Manuel, a former security guard, went without pay for six months.LUIS SEVILLANO

There is another dramatic situation to add to the ongoing drama of massive unemployment in Spain. This other scenario plays itself out quietly, and in many workplaces, people have gotten used to living side by side with it. We are talking about job exploitation.

The economic crisis has spawned an entire caste of unscrupulous employers who are making the most of the situation and exploiting their workers to the fullest. Of every 100 work inspections carried out in 2012 (figures are available through to November 30), irregularities were found in 23.9 percent of cases (job exploitation is only one of a long list of possible workplace irregularities). In the hotel and restaurant sector, the figure is closer to 30 percent.

"Spain has a serious problem with social awareness," says Juan José Camino Frías, deputy director general for Social Security, Irregular Economy and Immigration Inspections. "There is an excessive tolerance [of abusive job conditions], which is extremely serious."

There is an excessive tolerance of abusive job conditions, which is extremely serious"

Frías notes that it is not just about workers' rights being violated, but also about social security contributions not being paid - contributions that would help with the growing need to cover unemployment insurance payments in the current climate.

The crisis is giving birth to an era of increasingly defenseless workers, who are used and then discarded as if they were paper tissues. But they are a silent group, refusing to report abuse because nobody wants to risk losing that most precious asset of all: a job - any job. Nearly every single person interviewed for this story, save for two individuals, refused to have their picture taken and asked that only their initials be used. They did not want to be seen as rebellious, out of fear of losing their job, or of not finding work in the future.

Astonishing job offers

Job sites are a world unto themselves. All kinds of offers can be found there - some that are on the borderline of legality, and others that are downright abusive.

Marina Calvo, head of the unemployment department of the Madrid section of the labor union UGT, receives a number of complaints every day.

"Sometimes, you wonder how some [of the job advertisers] don't die of shame," she says.

Calvo says that there is a proliferation of offers, especially for salespeople, in which workers who fail to meet company targets do not get paid anything at all. Not only that, but the worker has to put up the costs of traveling to see the clients. In other words, the workers are actually paying for the privilege of working.

Eduardo González, of a group called Juventud sin Futuro (Youth with No Future), has seen a lot of odd job offers. A year ago, his organization launched a service that lets people report abuse, seek legal advice and post examples of the job offers they find online.

"Day in, day out, we see offers that violate workers' rights," says González.

Occasionally, some ads go as far as to offer jobs for no salary at all. Three months ago, Infojobs listed an offer that created quite a buzz on the social networks. It read as follows: "Wanted: volunteer communications director. Job description: Fundación Alia2's mission is to protect minors on the internet. This position is for a volunteer to work in the press department as communications director. This job is unpaid. A constantly growing foundation requires a great amount of human capital to function properly; that is why we are constantly seeking personnel..."

The ad went on to describe the list of tasks the communications director would have to perform, such as drafting newsletters, staying in touch with the media and calling up journalists covering related issues, preparing the director's speeches, writing press releases, holding press conferences and so on. Candidates were encouraged to be familiar with new technologies, have a university degree in journalism, at least two years' work experience, and English writing skills, among other requirements.

In a telephone conversation, foundation director Miguel Comín said he is aware that his job offer did not go down well, but he underscored that it is perfectly legal to ask for a volunteer for a foundation.

- The six-day-a-week nanny offered 400 euros a month. Originally from the Dominican Republic, J. has been living in Spain for 24 years. She has no electricity and no gas at home, because she had to stop paying her utility bills. Thanks to a homeowners support group called Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, she managed to avoid being evicted from her house last October. Shortly before Christmas, as she was walking out of church, a woman told her she knew of a job opportunity and gave her a phone number. The potential employer lived in the exclusive residential area of La Moraleja, outside Madrid.

J. called to inquire about the job. She was told she would have to care for a seven-year-old boy, six days a week, from 3pm to 12.30am. Her one day off would vary every week at her employer's convenience. The pay: 400 euros a month. "That woman was taking advantage of the desperate situation in which a lot of foreigners without papers, like myself, find themselves," says J. "If she lives in La Moraleja, it's because she makes good money."

J. needs cash so badly that, even though the job would have meant not being able to care for her own 13-year-old daughter in the evenings, she said she would accept, but that 400 euros was too little and that she wanted at least 500. "The woman got angry and hung up on me."

- The cook's 14-hour workday. Jesús Portillo has been working in the restaurant trade for 30 years, ever since he was 16. During this time he has suffered all kinds of abuse, but the most incredible case in recent times was when he called about an offer to work at a franchise of a well-known chain of tapas bars. The owner was about to open a new establishment and he needed a cook. Portillo, who was born in Extremadura but lives in Barcelona, showed up for the job interview. The conditions were 600 euros a month for 12- to 14-hour workdays. He would officially sign a contract showing only a four-hour workday, and if things went well they could renegotiate the terms, he was told.

In order to join the team he first had to take a course in one of the chain's existing establishments, in Cornellà de Llobregat. That is where Portillo underwent one of the most abusive selection processes he has ever seen.

"The course basically meant working for free for three days," he says. Fifteen people showed up for the so-called course. The boss kept screaming at them to work faster, and five candidates left within the first half-hour. Soon after, the first customers began trickling in. "Faster, faster!" the bar manager kept yelling. Three young women walked out, tired of the abuse. By the time the bar was full of people, there were only four candidates left out of the original 15. Three of them, including Portillo, gave up before the day was out. "But this time we were the ones who were hurling the insults."

The owner paid 20 euros for 14 hours of work

The next day, the owner of the new franchise apologized and told Portillo that things would be different at his own establishment. The first day on the job, Portillo worked 14 hours. At the end of the day, the owner paid him 20 euros, the proportional part of his 600-euro salary. That is, 20 euros for 14 hours of work.

The kind of work he was being asked to do should be paid between 1,200 and 1,300 euros a month, not 600, he notes. "That's not exploitation, that's slavery," says Portillo, who has been living on unemployment checks for two years and has not made a single euro in the last seven months. His wife, who was working at a local health center, is also out of a job now.

Last week, Portillo was offered a job that pays 1,300 euros a month, but he has to put in 18-hour days, from 7am to 1am the following morning, six days a week, Monday through Saturday. "This is our job reality: exploitation, humiliation, mafias, extortion."

- The security guard who hasn't been paid in six months. Manuel Chicharro is 50 and he can't take it anymore. He has been a security guard since 1988 and he has seen it all: colleagues who made four euros an hour, people working without contracts... A few years ago he worked at a well-known museum in Madrid and he had to take his son with him because his employer would not let him take the weekends off - even though he is entitled to it by law - given that he and his wife are separated. But even that was nothing compared with not earning a cent for six consecutive months.

After nearly seven months without any income, Manuel is a broken man

Manuel is a broken man. After nearly seven months without any income, he cannot pay his wife the 400-euro alimony he owes her, and has been living on what his new partner makes.

"The dramatic thing is that there is no safety net for the blue-collar worker," he says, standing near an unemployment office in Alcorcón, outside Madrid.

His is an extreme case that illustrates the defenselessness of an employee when his company goes bankrupt. Manuel Chicharro used to work as a security guard at the Training Center Primero de Mayo, in Leganés. On January 1, 2012, the company where he had been working for the last 12 years, Ariete, transferred him to another firm, a normal occurrence in the sector. He began working for ESABE, whose entire management team was arrested on December 20 on charges of defrauding 30 million euros from Social Security. This created a nightmare situation for many ESABE employees.

"Imagine what it's like not getting paid, month after month, for five months, yet having to show up for work because otherwise you'd get fired," he says.

Manuel was hanging on, hoping to be transferred to another company like his colleagues, who went on to work for security firm Prosegur. Even though he had been at the previous company for 12 years, he needed to have a seven-month history at ESABE in order to be transferred again, he explains. He was just 25 days short of that. So now he neither works, nor has he been paid for those more than six months he was at ESABE.

They use us like doormen, so others can wiggle out of their own duties"

"Public agencies resort to cheap companies, but cheap things end up being expensive in the long run," he says angrily, claiming that public agencies hire security companies to do the work that local police officers or security guards with long-term contracts simply don't feel like doing.

"They use us like doormen, like janitors, just so other people can wiggle out of their own duties."

- Paying to apply for a job. The case of R., a 34-year-old woman, does not even qualify as job exploitation. Rather, it illustrates how some people are willing to take advantage of those in dire need of a job.

In May of last year, R. saw a job offer on the website Infojobs. She signed up for it. The company asked that all candidates hand in their résumés personally at their offices, so off she went.

When she got there - it was a building inside an industrial park between Aldaia and Torrent (Valencia) - she noticed that there was no sign outside the door. "I thought that was strange," she says. She walked inside and saw six young women already waiting there.

Pay money to apply for a job? I walked out in anger, it was such a joke"

A woman came out of a small office and handed her a form to fill out, indicating the date of the candidate selection process: June 25. But in order to participate, candidates were supposed to pay 50 euros. "Pay money to apply for a job? I walked out in anger, it was such a joke."

R. did not leave it at that, and talked to the police, to consumer groups, with the Valencian employment department and with Infojobs, which pulled the ad soon after that. "Let's just say there was no selection process on June 25," says R. In July, she received a letter from the company informing her that she had not been selected for the job.

- Pizza deliveries at all hours of the day. L. is not complaining. He does not even feel that making 210 euros a month for delivering pizzas is all that bad. It's a bother not knowing what time he will have to make his deliveries the following day, but he can live with that. All he knows is that he will put in two hours a day; the company knows it has an army of floating delivery boys ready to be used whenever it needs them.

To be given more working hours, he has to improve his delivery ratio. There is a list back at the office with the ranking of the top employees. "There is competition among us; if I earn extra hours, I am taking them away from a colleague," says this 25-year-old Dominican. He still prefers his current job to the one he had before, delivering hotdogs. At that place, he was paid depending on how much cash the company made that day, and he was putting in 13-hour shifts.

"I took the order over the phone, prepared the hotdogs and delivered them in person," he explains. One day he would get paid 100 euros, three days later it was 150 euros, and so on until he got his 800 euros a month, half of which they gave him in cash.

- The eternal intern. J. blames the universities. He says they are accomplices to the situation of an entire generation. "We have to pay for the privilege of working as interns and making 200 euros," says this 23-year-old journalism graduate. Many media outlets, he explains, tell recent graduates that it is a good idea for them to maintain a link to the university so they can apply for a student internship. "There are students who flunk one course on purpose so they can keep applying for internships," he says. "Then you end up working like any other journalist, and you come to realize that you are, in fact, replacing someone. You are as productive as anyone else, but without their wages or rights. Technically they can give you an internship twice, and when you're back on the street, you realize that you haven't made a single day's contribution to Social Security."

Companies (and not just media companies, since J. says this is also happening to his friends, who are chemistry and physics graduates) no longer seek graduates - they seek students.

"Universities are the main driving force behind all this. Businesses take advantage of it, but the university should come out in defense of its students."

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS