No luck in paradise

Thousands of Spaniards are making the move to Germany in search of work, attracted by reports of huge labor shortages in the country But once there, they are having to face some harsh realities

From left to right: Miguel Ángel, Ignacio, Esther, Sara, Irene, Andrés and marina.
From left to right: Miguel Ángel, Ignacio, Esther, Sara, Irene, Andrés and marina.EBERHARD THONFELD

Among the first German phrases that Javier Lázaro learnt after moving to Munich in search of work as an electrician was: "No more Spaniards in here." The rebuttal came from a nightclub doorman, as Javier was attempting to celebrate his first wage packet with a group of fellow expat Spaniards.

Now, at least, Lázaro can laugh off the incident, and 16 months later he has settled down and got married (to another Spaniard), and has a baby boy. He works with Miguel Ángel López, another electrician, who, like Lázaro, has just turned 30.

"I came with just my car and a few clothes, after being unemployed for seven months. Later I brought my wife, the two kids, and the family dog," Miguel Ángel says with a smile.

On the whole, Lázaro and López, like their two friends Werner Santiago, 34, and Pedro Lara, 38, are happy with their lot. The four electricians belong to the more than 50,000 Spaniards who registered with the German authorities between 2011 and 2012; it's been more than 40 years since so many Spaniards went to seek a living in Germany. Like their grandparents, they are looking for work in a country that has become famous for its labor shortages. But a recent report by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that two-thirds of Spaniards who arrived in Germany in 2011 left within a year after failing to find a job.

Munich is one of the favorite destinations of skilled tradesmen like our four electricians, who say that the city is not as expensive as people make out, and that they have been able to make as much money as they were making in Spain during the years of the construction boom. They were lucky to arrive just when the regional government launched a campaign to attract Spaniards. They joined a building company, and were put under the supervision of Manfred Sirges, who is half-Spanish. Asked about how his four charges have adapted, he smiles wryly and asks: "Do you want the truth?"

He then explains that Spaniards need a minimum of six months to adapt to German ways of working. "There are problems with details, safety and rules. It is hard work getting them up to scratch - it's a challenge. The Germans are very rigid, and you have to adapt to the way that they work: it's all about following the rules," he explains.

The program the four Spanish electricians signed up to is the brainchild of Heinrich Traublinger, head of the Upper Bavaria Arts and Trades Chamber. A former Christian Democratic Union deputy in the regional government, he is the very model of a German businessman. He runs a bakery that employs 160 people, among them a Spaniard, whom he says is "fitting in nicely." He says that southern Germany needs "thousands of young, well-qualified workers," so Traublinger and the regional premier, Horst Seehofer, have set about attracting them to the 77,000 companies in the area. He already has "hundreds of CVs, along with thousands more waiting to be processed. Spain's dramatic 56-percent youth-unemployment rate could be relieved by our need for qualified labor," he says.

But Spain's INE statistics office says it is still older people — aged between 45 and 54 — who make up the majority of those seeking work in Germany. One of them is Octavio Ndong, who, at the age of 52, is a walking illustration of the six-year-long economic disaster in which Spain is still very much mired.

Spaniards need six months to adapt to German ways of working

He moved to Barcelona from the tiny West African former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea in the 1980s, attending college to study technical engineering, going on to work for several years, until he was laid off by car manufacturer Seat in 2002. He then set up a transport and messenger company, taking advantage of the economic boom. In a good month, he says, he took home 3,000 euros.

A nationalized Spaniard and a grandfather for the last 11 years, Ndong decided to buy an apartment - which is when his problems began. He borrowed 120,000 euros, but as he explains, "by 2007, businesses were already beginning to close; over the next two years things got worse, and the phone literally stopped ringing." In 2011, he deregistered as self-employed, hoping he would be eligible for unemployment benefit. "But by 2010, they had stopped payments, no matter how much you had put into the system, so I got nothing." Along with his granddaughter, he decided to try his luck in Germany. This is when things really started to go wrong.

"I didn't think the thing through," he says. "Berlin was a huge mountain to climb: the language, and then finding somewhere to live... We had a terrible time of it." He has not had a permanent residence since he arrived in the German capital 13 months ago. He has found work as a hotel cleaner, but his last employee, the Ibis chain, sacked him after he had a knee operation.

Regina Thiele, a volunteer at a Church-run center for the homeless, has met Ndong several times and says his story is far from unusual. "We have seen a huge increase in the numbers of people from Latin America, as well as Spain, in desperate need. In 2010, we helped around 60 people; the next year, the figure was up to 65, and this year, the figure continues to rise," she says.

Speaking from her office in the center of Berlin, Thiele says she is used to working with people in need, people with no qualifications and few skills. But over the last four years she has begun to notice that more and more of the people coming to her for help are professionals: "Architects, engineers, that sort of thing, and all of them Spaniards. The people who come to us are not looking for an easy ride. They have hit rock bottom and have nobody else to turn to. They don't speak German; they are lost. Some say that they found work on the internet, but that when they got here the whole thing was a fraud: they weren't paid, or were offered pitiful wages that they cannot live on. The older people find it hardest to adapt. They sometimes bring their families with them, but they have no contacts, they don't speak the language, and have only come to Germany because they are desperate after years of unemployment in Spain."

We have seen a huge increase in numbers of people from Latin America"

Cáritas, the Catholic Church charity she works for, has no shelters in Berlin, but does all it can. After an initial meeting to get an idea of people's needs, Thiele says she helps the homeless "get on their feet." She gives them the addresses of state-run shelters and soup kitchens, and then puts them in touch with employment offices. If they need healthcare, she arranges appointments with free clinics for people without social security, such as the center run by Peruvian doctor Jenny de la Torre in the German capital. She says she has also noticed an increase in the number of Spaniards who are near destitute, "especially young people, living in conditions that a few years ago would have been unimaginable for them." Her experiences with "entire families living in parks" provides a stark contrast to the "adventurous drive" that Spanish immigration minister Marina del Corral describes to explain why more and more of the country's six million unemployed are heading abroad.

Germany seems pleased that it has become a magnet for Europe's increasingly desperate long-term unemployed, if the country's media is to be believed. Newspapers such as Die Zeit say that immigration reflects the country's popularity. It has published innumerable stories and supposedly insightful analysis on why Germany is so "attractive" to young people throughout Europe. One story from 2011 was headlined: "The promised land." It tends to avoid reporting on those who end up in hell, or at best limbo, when they come here. It also avoids discussion of whether it is the austerity policies that Germany is imposing on the rest of Europe that are driving more and more people to seek work here. A recent survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation shows that 55 percent of Germans believe that the country needs to attract qualified foreign labor. The right-wing Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently ran a story about Spanish biochemist Víctor María Cervera who ended up working as an au pair in Frankfurt for a German-Spanish family. A senior executive with a large German company read the story and offered him a job. Frankfurt's main daily published a rags-to-riches-style story after Cervera took up his position in May.

Isabel Grasa Villalonga, Cervera's former employer, has few illusions about what awaits Spaniards seeking a new life in Germany. "His story is very much the exception — pure luck." Nacho, who has taken over from him looking after the kids, represents the harsher reality.

The majority of Spaniards do not find what they are looking for here"

Nacho is Juan Ignacio Salinero. Now aged 25, he finished his degree in environmental engineering in 2011, and then, he says, set about looking for work, sending out hundreds of CVs. "I managed to get a few interviews, but what's the point of travelling to Barcelona for a job that pays 12,000 euros?"

So, in 2012, he decided to try his luck in Germany, first getting a job looking after children so that he could improve his German while looking for something in his line of work. Isabel Grasa says that Salinero is making every effort to get to know his new home. She sighs ruefully as she remembers the response to an advertisement the family placed for an au pair: "35-year-old university graduates... we were bombarded with replies from Spaniards — the new Spaniards." Salinero talks with a mixture of hope and longing, fearful that he will be the only one not to be allowed into the German Eden. A couple of weeks after talking to him, he took up a job as a waiter. Better news followed: he will be starting in a position on October 1 with Dortmund-based engineering company Bronkhorst Mättig, which makes sophisticated measuring equipment. He says he is "very happy" with the salary he has been offered during his trial period, and that the 15 months spent perfecting his German have been essential. "English means nothing here," he explains. "I could never have found a job like this in Spain."

Herbert Brücker of the IAB labor research institute says that while there are notable success stories, "the majority of Spaniards do not find what they are looking for: it is not uncommon to find university graduates working as waiters." Two-thirds of the new immigrants from the south of Europe working in Germany have university degrees, and are better educated than their German counterparts. The biggest obstacle they face is the language; but they also find the climate challenging, as well as adapting to the way that Germans do things.

Brücker believes that the immigration flows will increase over the next two years. "Germany is benefiting tremendously from this transfer of human capital, because most of these people will end up staying here," he says, adding: "The contribution to the pension system they will make will more than compensate for spending on social services or unemployment benefit."

But in reality, immigrants are unlikely to ever be much of a burden to the German state: the authorities do all they can to make it difficult for foreigners to access the welfare system, says lawyer Íñigo Valdenbro.

He runs a free advisory service for recently arrived migrants in Berlin, and has links to Spain's 15-M civic protest movement. Speaking from his austere office he says that many Spaniards "are unaware that they are entitled to unemployment benefit, which is for everyone here."

The longer you spend here, the more you want to come back"

The German government says that the country has a shortfall of up to 200,000 skilled workers, a figure questioned by Thomas Liebig of the OECD, who suggests that Germany is trying to create a labor pool to bring down wages. "The labor shortages are in several very limited sectors, such as some areas of engineering or computer programming. Very few of the companies that say they need people are prepared to take on foreigners - only about 20 percent or so."

In May, EL PAÍS spoke to seven Spaniards who had moved to Berlin. And since then, three have already decided to return home. Andrés Pérez spent three months in Berlin trying to learn German while he looked for work; Marina Román says she will be coming back to Spain in October, after finding a job in her home country; and Miguel Ángel Liceras has been in Berlin for five years, but says that he cannot accept the short-term contract he has been offered. "The more intelligent Spaniards are coming home because they can't find decent jobs," he explains. But he says that the experience has been invaluable.

The others that were interviewed for this article said that they will stay on longer, despite the difficulties. But Sara Grana is already sure that she would like to return home. "The longer you spend here, the more you want to come back," she says.

But Sara and others say they do not feel rejected by Germany. As Brücker explains, Spanish immigrants are largely welcomed in the country, in stark contrast with the reception given to Turks or Africans.

Biologist Irene Tamayo describes the attitude of her hosts as "patronizing, and rather uncomfortable at times." Ndong says he has no choice but to stick it out in Berlin, while the four electricians admit that while things are going well for them right now, they do not feel as if they are at home, and if they could choose, would much prefer to be in Spain.

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