In the first days of the tourist season in Green Spain, sightseers, attracted by orujo, a grappa-like liquor, and local honey, brave a downpour to swarm on motorbikes and coaches around the centre of Potes, the gateway to the Picos de Europa, the mountain range famed for being the first sign of the continent for sailors returning from the Atlantic during the era of Columbus.
Mirroring the national economy, the coming of the season has provided relief for some. Nearly one thousand jobs were added in the department of Cantabria in May – a small relief, however, when it is taken into account that the national unemployment rate is over 25% and that most posts will likely be shed before the start of the October.
But it is not only Spanish nationals who are subject to the whims of this volatile labour market. Attracted by well-paid but low skilled work, Spain’s population swelled by five million people between 2000 and 2009, many from Latin America and Eastern Europe – especially Romania. Now, three countries – Romania, Ecuador and Colombia – account for half of those leaving Spain. And there are a lot – 200’000 in 2012.
In the village of Tama, Cantabria, a microcosm of the open labour market is being played out.
Adolfo, owner of a smart mid-market guesthouse and adjoining restaurant, prefers to employ the Eastern European workers that migrated here with the opening of the labour market to Romanians and Bulgarians in 2009. He believes that many potential workers in Spain refuse to work in the industry because of the long hours, preferring to collect state benefits. Plus, “a girl from the East will have more work experience, and will be able to do more than a girl from Spain”.
Lily, from Moldova, and has been working in Spain for six years – five of them at the guesthouse. She is grateful to Adolfo and his family, who she says treat her well. Her tasks of serving breakfast, making beds and doing laundry are typical of those performed by Eastern European employees: unglamorous and essential.
Her job allows her to send money back to Moldova to support her sister, who has a handicapped child in need of full-time care as well as other young relatives who need financial support to continue studying. In Moldova, the poorest country in Europe, remittances make up 30% of GDP, and approximately 20% of Moldovans are regular recipients.
I ask Lily if she misses home? ‘Of course’ she replies, but she visits for her birthday every February, and, in any case, the situation is only temporary, until her sisters’ children finish their education. She has siblings in Ukraine and Russia who also left Moldova to find work. Her job is safe for now, but many who came for the boom years have already left after losing theirs. Whilst some have returned home to buoyant emerging economies, many others face the uncertainty of unemployment.
Despite many optimistic signs of growth in tourism across Spain – with some sources estimating 2013 to be a record summer in terms of foreign visitors – Adolfo is not convinced of a recovery. Bookings are down from Spanish nationals and foreigners alike, a trend he says has accelerated in the last two years. And, with the IMF predicting growth of 1% per year for the next 5 years with weak employment prospects, it is difficult to argue with him.
I take a healthy sip from my second glass of orujo. Outside, in an environment that attracts moisture in amounts comparable to that of the Scottish highlands, the rain continues to pour. I ask Adolfo what the outlook is. ‘A bit black’ comes the reply.