When he was a child, Juan Ramón Merlos’ father was forced to emigrate from Almería to Sagunto, Valencia. He walked there, making his way slowly up the coast. Now his 46-year-old son, a machine operator, smiles as he recounts the story. His warm expression stands in contrast to the harshness of the German syntax, the freezing fog coming in from the Ruhr and the rigors of his new job as a smelter in Duisburg.
Juan Ramón’s father lost several toenails during that brutal journey on foot. Those were the years of poverty. This summer, the ThyssenKrupp-Galmed plant in Sagunto, where Juan Ramón worked as a machine operator, announced it was shutting down entirely and liquidating 165 jobs. The unions negotiated with the industrial giant, and announced an unprecedented deal: the Spanish workers would be relocated to other company factories in Germany.
Around 40 of them chose early retirement, five managed to relocate in Spain, a few are still considering their options, and more than 50 opted for the unemployment line. But 55 accepted the offer, and have been trickling into Duisburg with their families over the past month. Together, they make up a contingent of more than 120 Spanish immigrants fleeing unemployment at home.
César Pérez, a 32-year-old from Asturias, arrived in Duisburg, one of the largest cities in the Ruhr’s industrial belt, with his girlfriend, his car, his dog and his cat. On Wednesday, as he walked out of his “cultural integration” course at the company’s giant education center on the outskirts of town, he noted that there were things that were “not quite the way we expected.”
César was in the company of Antonio Martínez and Jacobo Tarancón, who are around the same age and have the same background as technicians. The integration course lasts a week, and it is the first step before they begin 100 hours of German classes, which will take an entire month. All three have been in Germany for a couple of weeks and are starting to feel weary from their adaptation efforts.
The company pays their rent, moving expenses and for courses and lessons
“It’s not that we dislike it, but suddenly everything seems slower and more cumbersome than we expected,” they explain.
The euphemism about “exterior mobility” coined by Employment Minister Fátima Báñez, and so highly praised by politicians who can barely speak a few words of English themselves, obviates the effort it takes to learn a new language when one is over 30 years old and has no prior linguistic experience. And then there is the added effort of adapting to the customs of a foreign region with its own weather, food and soccer teams — which in the Rhineland constitute something of a religion.
Vanesa Martín, 37, already misses the fish from Sagunto. She spent time in Braunschweig while a business exchange student, so has an added advantage when it comes to adaptation. Her partner, the electrical engineer Oscar Larrey, sits next to her in one of the classrooms at the education center under the attentive gaze of Miguel Martin-Pelegrina, an executive at the ThyssenKrupp Group.
The couple explains that for them “the decision was easier to make” because they have no children and both are working for the same company. The deal, says Vanesa, is that “for the next four years we will all keep jobs and salaries equivalent to what we were making in Sagunto.” For the first year, the company also pays their rent, as well as their moving expenses, courses and other lessons for the entire family.
Martin-Pelegrina, the executive, is himself the son of immigrants who arrived here in the 1960s “with a suitcase” and a desire to work. When Vanesa Martín and Oscar Larrey left for the Christmas market to talk to a team from the regional public television network, WDR, Martin-Pelegrina and the new arrival in town, Juan Ramón Merlos, discussed his new position at the blast furnace, which is physically much more demanding than his maintenance work in Sagunto.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a problem because I worked in something similar before,” says Merlos, who has already brought over his two daughters, ages 13 and 16. His wife Marisol, 42, accepted the idea of moving “right away.” Their eldest daughter, Tania, was more reluctant to move, while the youngest reacted by “asking for a window seat on the plane.” Their father thinks they will have to repeat a school year because of the language problems.
The language issue is also his own main concern. “I cannot rule out that one day I will say, ‘That’s it, I can’t take it anymore’,” he says with a laugh. “Who would have thought that at age 46 I would find myself studying German?” Still, he plans to stay here “until I retire.” He believes that his daughters have a better future in Germany.
When Galmed shut down, it was rumored that it was “a political decision” to repatriate jobs. Ever since the crisis began, Spanish sentiment toward Germany has been one of mistrust, and Chancellor Angela Merkel has come to embody the root of Spain’s problems. Juan Carlos García Muñoz negotiated with the company as a member of the CCOO labor union, and he instead believes that it was “a strategic business decision that has also affected French plants and two historical factories in the industrial heart of Germany.”
However, García bemoans the fact that “in Sagunto we are losing jobs and are shutting down. That is not a success for the unions, nor is it a victory,” even if there are “very positive aspects” in the relocations and the negotiated compensation.
The new arrivals cautiously talk about the first problems they have encountered, such as finding themselves with a smaller first paycheck than they expected. Bureaucratic red tape is also exasperating for some migrants, who complain that they will not be able to begin work “until January or February.”
But like they say, “at least we have a decent job. Because what is there in Spain? What can you do there?”