The households bereft of workers

There are nearly two million family units in Spain without a single active member in employment This is what life is like for one couple forced to live on the limit

Carlos and Gema in their home in the south of Madrid.
Carlos and Gema in their home in the south of Madrid.CARLOS ROSILLO

The simplest acts in the life of Carlos and Gema have changed drastically in these times of crisis. The day that unemployment came bursting through their door, superfluous expenses had to go straight out the window.

Every time their eight-year-old daughter "A." wants to take a bath, her mother encourages her to forget about having a soak, and to take a quick shower instead - and above all, not to forget to use the bathtub plug. The next person to take a shower is Gema. She also leaves the plug in, allowing the water from the two showers to accumulate in the tub. This water is later used to wash down the floors of the apartment.

The point is to keep the water bill down to the bare minimum. That is also why they have decided to do the dishes just once a day, and always at night. The dishwasher broke down nine months ago and getting it repaired would set them back 120 euros, which is an unthinkable luxury right now. It was already embarrassing enough to have to ask their parents for 60 euros to pay for repairs to the boiler.

Carlos and Gema's home is one of 1,900,000 Spanish households where all of the active members are out of a job. Since 2005, the figure has been growing, quarter after quarter, and there are many personal dramas behind these statistics.

Paying 120 euros to have the dishwasher fixed is an unthinkable luxury right now

Carlos Javier Sanz is 43 and he's been unemployed for the last six months. Gema Martín is 39 and has been out of work for nearly a year-and-a-half. They just barely make ends meet with the 639-euro unemployment check he gets each month, as well as the 426 euros she receives as a family subsidy. They are fully aware that there are lots of people in even direr straits than themselves, but they represent a good snapshot of what life is like for the average Spaniard without a job.

"We want people to know what the situation is in the areas to the south of Madrid," Carlos explains. "There are lots of people in the same situation."

It is a little after 7pm and A. comes out of her judo class carrying a diploma in her hand. She's passed the exam and can move up from yellow belt to orange belt. "But you have to pay 15 euros," complains Carlos, as he reads the piece of paper his daughter has just handed him. Those 15 euros will be produced somehow, there is no doubt about it. When it comes to the children, they are the absolute priority, explains Gema a few minutes later, sitting inside the living room of the family apartment in Loranca, a residential suburb of Fuenlabrada, not far from Madrid, where 15 years ago the cropland was paved over and the vegetation replaced with tall brick buildings - subsidized housing for the most part.

Carlos comes from a family of tailors and most of his professional life has been spent in the clothing industry. Gema has done odd jobs here and there, and her latest position was as a nurse's assistant. They've been living in this apartment for the last 16 years. They got married to meet the requirements to apply for a subsidized home in 1997. Back in those glorious days, most Spaniards' fnances were in perfect order. The 300,000 pesetas (1,800 euros) they brought home could buy a lot back then. "On weekends we would go stay at paradores [elegant state-run hotels] or mountain bungalows," she recalls, holding a cigarette in her hand. "We really didn't hold back." The daily pack she used to smoke now lasts her three days.

They still have eight years left of mortgage payments to go. They pay 450 euros a month, which is nearly half of what they get from their monthly welfare checks.

The math is simple. Their income is 1,065 euros. Fixed expenses are around 1,400 euros (100 euros for building upkeep, 300 euros for food and gas using a supermarket credit card, and the utility bills). Like so many other families in similar situations, the odd job turns up now and then - babysitting and the like - which helps bring home a little extra money. But in order to make ends meet, they have no choice but to resort to their relatives. That, and deferring their bill payments, an art form that Gema learned from a neighbor.

"You play with the bills," explains Gema. For instance, when the electricity bill arrives and they cannot pay it, the bill gets returned to the company unpaid. The company then issues a new bill and gives them a deadline of a few more days to pay before shutting off the service. The resulting three-week period that elapses in this way is just long enough for the unemployment check to arrive (on the 10th of each month). As the deadline looms, Gema goes to the post office and pays the bill just in time.

Grocery shopping also requires some careful planning. The supermarket card gets charged during the first 20 days of every month, so the 21st is the day when they can let their hair down a little.

"I stick to the shopping list, but they always like to bring home a box of cookies or a little something extra," says Carlos in reference to his wife and daughter, as he pushes the shopping cart around in a hypermarket near their house.

"You need to give yourself a little bit of pleasure now and then, right?" laughs Gema.

Husband and wife have also become expert examiners of product labels. There is an area of the mall that sells cheaper products, either because they're packaged in bulk or because they're marketed under the hypermarket's own brand. After analyzing the labels, Carlos and Gema have realized that the same cheese is being sold for 0.69 euro inside a plain see-through wrapper and for 0.80 euros in fancier packaging that's easier to open. The same goes for oranges: the ones that come in bags are 1.39 euros, those in the "B category", without packaging, are 96 cents. "Some people are embarrassed to be seen in this part of the supermarket," says Gema.

She confesses that when she goes to the hypermarket, she does not even look at the veal cuts. "We buy a lot of pork, which is cheaper, and chicken. And hake once a month."

On the odd night, Gema and Carlos have had no choice but to eat a sandwich for dinner. Yet no matter how hard up they are, they try to stay true to their monthly ritual of taking the kids to a fast-food restaurant. That is their one luxury outing each month. Otherwise, when Gema and Carlos go out for a walk, they take a bag of sunflower seeds to munch on.

"In 2005 we all had jobs and we had a good life, until the bubble burst and the crisis came," explains Carlos, back home from the shopping expedition. But things have changed a lot since then - in the country, in the neighborhood, even at home. In the 25 years that he's been of working age, Carlos has barely ever been out of a job. Once he was unemployed for eight months after his father's factory, Sanz Moda, shut down in 2000. After working mostly in the clothing industry, he found a job at a do-it-yourself store, but has been out of work for the last seven months.

Gema has been a telemarketing phone operator, a cleaner, a babysitter and a caregiver at a senior residence, besides her last job as a nursing assistant. She has been sending out her résumé everywhere, to no avail. To save on photocopies and stamps, she made a shorter version that's just two pages long.

At her last interview, the prospective employer tried to hire her as a nurse, but she refused, because she lacks the training entitling her to administer injections.

"Now when they hire you, they don't even look at your training. They just care about candidates being willing to put up with anything," she says angrily.

The drama of unemployment is all around them. Growing numbers of relatives and neighbors are in the same dire straits. Every day, they see more fathers and fewer mothers picking up the kids after school. There are scores of former construction workers who are out of a job and dependent on their wives' salary. "Little by little, we're all falling."

Gema says that when you're caught up in this kind of situation, all of a sudden a lot of people you thought were friends suddenly fall off the radar. "When people let you down, you start to sink lower and lower. You stay at home with your kids, and you don't go out because you don't have the money, and everything turns into a problem," she explains.

On many nights, they go to bed early to avoid spending cash that they simply don't have.

"When the money's gone, couples go into crisis mode," she explains. "You're bitter, you're in a bad mood, and you have more arguments."

Despite everything, Gema has her hopes pinned on a job that she might be getting soon stamping t-shirts, and which will presumably last until September. Carlos also trusts that something will turn up. "I have that hope," he says.

Carlos and Gema dream that next winter will not be as harsh as the last, and that they will not have to wear their fleeces in their own living room just to save on heating bills.

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