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Homeless, jobless and fearless: is it Spain’s turn for a revolution?

Plagued by severe unemployment rates and lack of opportunities, the Spanish youth has hit the streets in 52 cities riding a tidal wave of protest agains their government's austerity measures, defying a ban against pre-election demonstrations.

by Javier Ramos and Federica Cocco On May 19, 2011

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Defying a ban on demonstrations, tens of thousands of protesters have been hitting the streets of 52 Spanish cities, to express anger against the government’s poor policies and a crisis that has deprived the youth of their right to a better future.

The ban was put in place by the Madrid Electoral Commission, for fear that the protests would influence the May 22nd municipal and regional elections.

Since this weekend, thousands of people have been camping in Madrid’s main square, where an assembly of 1,500 people has been discussing how to continue the struggle.

“We belong to a lost generation, one which is better educated than its forerunners but has fewer opportunities”, says Pablo Padilla, a 22-year-old sociologist. Having spent one year looking for a job, the best he could get was a three month internship, working four hours a day with a total pay of 300 euros. He also started studying for another degree in Anthropology to kill time, and enhance his CV until more opportunities come along.

Pablo, like many others in Spain – a country which holds a 43.5% youth unemployment rate – has had enough. He has joined ‘Juventud sin futuro’ (Youth Without a Future), a Spanish organization that has links with a number of student groups and activist associations, and has been pioneering the protests, demanding an end to policies which “put markets above people”.

A protest camp has been mounted on Madrid’s main Square, Puerta del Sol, with the aim of staying there until local elections next Sunday, May 22nd. For the general elections, they’ll have to wait until 2012. This weekend, about 1,500 people met there to discuss the strategy to keep on struggling.

Joining the 30,000 demonstrators of Madrid and 15,000 in Barcelona, the #spanishrevolution continued online and has been trending on Twitter since the protests began, mirroring the Arab Spring’s trademark online call for action.

What ‘Juventud sin futuro’ fights against can be easily summarised in their emblematic slogan: ‘Homeless, Jobless, Pensionless, Fearless’, hardships that have been plaguing Spain’s dissafected youth for too long.

“We elect a government once every four years, but votes are cast each day at the stock market,” says ‘Juventud sin futuro’ member Andrea Raboso, concluding that after the property market collapsed the government committed 11 billion euros “to save banks, while at the same time more and more essential welfare services were privatised and severe austerity measures were enforced”.

Andrea, who is in her last year of a History degree, says her work experience can be summed-up by “two years working in a shop without contract”.

Like Andrea or Pablo, Spain’s youngest generations are enduring an unbearably precarious situation, from widespread unemployment, to the difficulties in finding affordable housing, as well as the growing number of years – currently 37 – people will have to work in order to be entitled to a decent retirement pension, especially at a point in which finding a secure job is becoming increasingly difficult.

As a counter measure, ‘Juventud sin futuro’ is petitioning for the richest 10% to pay “for the crisis they have caused”, for easier access to affordable housing and for the abolition of the recent Labor Reform. This recent bill made firing easier and cheaper for business owners, cut public employees’ salaries, brought up the retirement age and failed to impose restrictions on short-term contracts. They also call for an electoral reform and for politicians who are facing corruption charges to be barred from running for office.

The overall unemployment rate in Spain – 20.4% – is twice as high for those aged between 16 and 29. When compared to youth unemployment rate in countries like the Netherlands (7.4%) or even with the average across the whole of Europe, the figures in Spain appear even more staggering. It perhaps not surprising that Spain houses almost a third of the Eurozone’s unemployed. Half of those (between 16 and 29) lucky enough to have found employment are condemned to job insecurity thorough short-term contracts.

“The Spanish economy subsists largely on tourism and the construction industry,” remarks ‘Juventud sin futuro’ member Andrea Raboso. The foundations of this model were put in place in 1993, when uncontrolled and speculative construction generated a huge property bubble that rose prices to preposterous sums. One would not have been hard-pressed to find families exhorted by their banks to sign 40-year mortgages.

As expected, around 2007, that bubble did explode, paralyzing the construction market and leaving a myriad of unemployed workers on the street. This situation coincided with the global economic crisis: unemployment rates rose dramatically.

Not surprisingly, those same families could not afford to pay back their mortgages. Last year, about 110,000 family homes were repossessed in lieu of outstanding loans. Indeed, for many families that was not enough as, due to the  ‘construction bubble’ explosion, their houses were worth a lot less than when purchased.

“Zapatero’s government seems to only act upon the market’s demands, we have no choice but to fight to reverse the cuts to the welfare system,” states Santiago Alonso, 29, a ‘Juventud sin futuro’ supporter. “Just look at the amount of money which goes into the army, we have to send that money to people who really need it”. Santiago studied audiovisual production but works in customer services and earns less than the national average wage, around 1050 euros for people aged 18 a 29.

Salaries like Santiago’s are worth next to nothing for those wishing to leave their parents’ house. Only 11,2% of Spaniards between 18 and 24 are economically independent, and even from 25 to 29, a majority (53%) are still living in the house in which they were raised. In some big cities like Madrid or Barcelona, the average rent of a flat – 1150 euros – is even a higher than the average salary for people between 18 and 29.

Although the property bubble is behind us, and some housing prices have been gradually falling, the situation is still dramatic. A number of studies have shown that young people would have to invest 86% of their salary to buy a house, or increase their earnings threefold to own property ‘in normal conditions’. In addition, although house prices have been falling, rents have remained the same.

“Some people hold very pernicious views on our situation. They say young people are too lazy to leave their parents’ house while in the rest of Europe is way ahead of us. But we’re stuck in a rut and it’s not our fault. We need universally affordable social accommodation, we demand that the 1,000,000 empty flats of Spain are rented to young people for fair prices”, states Eduardo Fernández, another member of ‘Juventud sin futuro’.

Joaquín Núñez, 26, took part in last Sunday’s rally. Although he holds degrees in Law and Political Science, a masters degree, and speaks English and French, he has been unemployed since January. For three years he worked in the City Hall, bound by short-term contracts. “Companies won’t hire me – some because I’m too qualified; they’d rather hire someone they can pay less”. He’s also concerned about the rising retirement age: “the way things are, it will be hard to work for 37 years”. Due to a recent change in the law, people have to work two more years – 37 in total – to get the maximum pension, as the retirement age has risen from 65 to 67.

“It makes no sense, we’re finding it impossible to join the the labor market, people are retiring later in life and they are not letting us replace them”, says Andrea Raboso, who also supports a tax reform that would force higher income groups to pay more taxes, as surely “people who created the crisis must pay for it”.

“We are not merchandise, and we won’t pay for this crisis”; “600 euros wage, that’s real violence”, shouted a young tide in Madrid, representing a “lost generation”, struggling to find a job, a house, a pension and dignity, fighting simply for support from their own government.

Photo Credits: Cristina E. Lozano

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