London calling

With no job prospects at home in sight, growing numbers of Spaniards are trying their luck abroad

Lucía Navarro is 26 and hails from Madrid  but now works for a charity in London.
Lucía Navarro is 26 and hails from Madrid but now works for a charity in London.Jordi Adrià

Welcome to London, the capital of opportunities, the destination of choice for Spaniards; particularly the more than 50 percent of young people without work: "A city of survivors, a place where it doesn't matter who you are or where you are from: all that matters is what you want to do and the skills you bring with you," says one "survivor."

Jonathan Goya arrived in London on October 8, 2012. A former boxer, the 34-year-old had tried running a small bar in Madrid, but got into debt and was forced to close it. A friend put him up for six weeks while he spent the days tramping the streets in search of work. Eventually he found a job washing dishes at a small Spanish tapas bar called Pinchito, where he has remained.

"I'm not ashamed, I'm grateful for this job," he says, sitting at one of the tables. He works six days a week, eats at the restaurant and takes home around 1,000 euros a month, about a third of which he sends home. He studies English in his spare time.

Goya says that things got so bad during his first weeks in the city that he even returned to fighting, briefly.

"I got beaten up for 30 pounds," he jokes before returning to the kitchen, where a pile of dirty dishes awaits him.

London is not the worst place to try to start a new life. It's just two-and-a-half hours away from Spain, with more than 300 flights a day, and there is now a network that makes it easier for newcomers like Jonathan to make their way. And there is always work to be found in bars, restaurants, fast-food outlets and shops. In 2007, 11,840 Spaniards were registered with the tax authorities; by 2011, that figure had tripled. Over the last five years a total of 100,000 Spaniards have tried their luck in the UK, most of them in London.

"There's work here, but most of it is doing things that the British don't want to do," says the Spanish manager of a bar in the West End. "The real challenge is getting on to the next rung of the ladder."

Alloa Road is tucked away behind Millwall soccer club's stadium in southeast London, and is home to two Spanish women who have successfully moved up the ladder, working in fields they were trained for, but who couldn't find a job at home.

Paola del Río and Lucía Navarro, both aged 26, are childhood friends who arrived two years ago and even though they could barely speak English, they say they immediately found work at one of the capital's Zara fashion outlets.

Paola, who studied human resources and has a master's in tax consulting, stuck it out for a month, and was then able to find work at an offshore investment company.

Lucía has taken longer. After 14 months behind the till at Zara, where half the staff of 50 were Spanish, and studying part time at the London School of Marketing, she eventually got a job as an intern at a charity. When we spoke to her she was about to be given a full-time job there. "I thought about throwing in the towel and going home many times," she says. "But then my father would talk me out of it. It's better to stick it out, even though you know you are being exploited. London opens your mind. I think that when we go back to Spain we will be very well-qualified; ours is a strong generation."

Across the city, in the leafy neighborhood of Belsize Park, a large Victorian house is home to around a dozen Spaniards, most of whom are sitting around on sofas watching The Godfather when we visit. Accommodation costs 100 pounds a week, which includes breakfast and dinner; some guests help out with cleaning or manning the reception to help pay for their keep.

Among them is a music teacher who supplements his income by busking on his guitar, and a lifeguard from Benidorm who is now working at the local municipal swimming pool for the minimum wage of six pounds an hour. María Leiva and Nerea Díez, aged 19 and 20 respectively, have only been here a few days, but have heard that fast-food outlet Prêt-à-Manger is holding interviews the next day. They want to be up early: they've heard that the queue of hopefuls normally stretches halfway round the block.

Seven members of the household also work in a McDonald's just off the Bayswater Road. The manager there is Miguel Seoane, aged 43. He moved to London in 1994, since when he has become something of a legend, helping out newcomers to the capital, who now send their queries to him via WhatsApp. "Don't form relationships with anybody, because they all move on. London will chew you up and spit you out if you don't keep your wits about you; but it can also make you feel at home," he advises, adding: "I don't feel like an immigrant; more like a European."

But Daniel Santana, 24, who studied business in the Canary Islands before heading for London, says he sees himself as an immigrant: "I came here to make a better life for myself."

Elena Cabello, aged 27, says she feels let down by Spain. "We're the generation born in the mid-eighties, a lost generation. The sons and daughters of the middle classes, the Spanish miracle," she says sarcastically.

After breakfast in Belsize Park, which is served promptly at 7am, Nerea, María, and 18-year-old Felipe García from Seville, also recently arrived, gather in the reception area before heading off for their interview with the sandwich bar chain.

On the underground Felipe ponders the advice he has been given: "In London, you either keep moving, or you'll be left behind." The three get out at Victoria Station and head for the offices of Prêt-à-Manger, which don't open until 9am: it's still only 7.45am, and there is nobody around. It looks like they are the first in line. A couple of minutes later, another hopeful turns up. He could be Spanish, but nobody says anything.

He turns out to be Daniel Flores, 26, and also from Seville. He has brought a cheat-sheet with the answers to the questions he has been told he will be asked. A few more people turn up, and that's it. The open-day session turns out to consist of sitting in front of a computer answering multiple choice questions: "I think I would like to work in Prêt-à-Manger because: a) I need the money and a job. b) I adore working with food and meeting customers..."

An older man who looks Spanish, in his early fifties, comes in, and is directed to a desk for an interview.

Outside, he excitedly says that he has been offered a job - his first in London. He gives his name simply as J. L., saying he is still receiving unemployment benefit in Spain. He left the print factory where he worked in Barcelona "when things began to look bad," and followed his brother-in-law, who has been in London a couple of years.

We walk over to nearby Pimlico with him to meet the brother-in-law: Ángel Velázquez, aged 54, who is employed as a cleaner and handyman in a private apartment block. Outside the entrance to the building, he stoops to pick up some syringes. It's lunchtime, and the pair head off to the two-bedroom apartment they share near the river. They heat up a chickpea-based stew, and as they eat, they say that they are angry about the situation in Spain. They too feel betrayed. They say that they will stay in London until they retire.

It's been a tough time. Velázquez arrived with just a few clothes in a rucksack in 2011, unable to speak a word of English. He paid an agency to find him somewhere to live and a job, without success. He says he has gotten ahead thanks mainly to the immigration office and the Spanish-speaking community in the area, among them the owner of the Spanish bar Art of Tapas, who employed him for a while.

After they finish their lunch, Velázquez takes us to the bar, and along the way we meet Albert, a street cleaner for the council. The 32-year-old arrived from his native Catalonia last year, and usually has a mid-morning coffee in Art of Tapas. Albert, too, says he has turned his back on Spain, referring solely to it as "that place down there."

He says he has no intention of going back, but saves all he earns. He has a lot of free time on his hands, so much so, he says, that he managed to break the combination on a bicycle lock he found: "It took me 1,507 turns." Since then he has built his own bicycle out of spare parts he finds during his round each day.

"I'm never going back. I burned my bridges. I'm glad to be shot of that place down there." Next time you're in London, look him up: he's usually to be found around the smart streets between Buckingham Palace and Belgravia.

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