Journeys Toward Empowerment and Visibility: Latin American Migrants in Spain and the UK
By Marlene Schörner & Aria Guevara
After the 2008 financial crisis, many Latin American migrants living in Spain moved to the UK in search of employment. The continued growth of this community in both countries has given rise to many organizations that strive to empower migrants working under exploitative conditions and bring visibility to those who are often considered to be part of an “invisible community.”
“We pick up trash, but we are not trash”
In 2019, Latin American migrant women employed as cleaners for Chanel’s London storefront partnered with labor unions and other organizations to demand the London living wage after multiple disagreements with their employer over understaffing and underpaying. The Latin American community in Europe is growing and has been fighting to secure more rights and visibility for migrant workers. In Spain, the number of foreign workers has skyrocketed since 2014 and the number of Latin American migrants increased by approximately 20% in the last year. As of July 2022, over 3 million Spanish residents are from Latin America, the majority of which come from Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador.
Latin American Residents in Spain by Country (July 2022)
While Spain is an ideal choice for these migrants because of a shared language, oftentimes the lives of these individuals are characterized by “onward migration,” meaning that the country where they entered the EU is not always their final destination. Many Latin American migrants moved to the UK because of the high levels of unemployment in Spain during the financial crisis. However, official monitoring for this community remains limited in the UK, and research conducted by Queen Mary University found that over half of the quarter million Latinos in the UK resided in London.
As can be expected, their precarious immigration status and the lack of employee protection make them vulnerable to exploitation through false contracts, poor wages, or dangerous working conditions. Last summer, Spain announced that it is facilitating the entry of skilled and unskilled workers from Latin America to aid labor supply shortages in highly demanded sectors. While for many, this facilitated entry is seen as an opportunity to escape the rampant corruption, violence, and poor job prospects in their home countries, the reality is that the lived experience in Europe comes with a unique struggle of its own.
Upon arrival, many migrants can immediately expect to be underemployed despite their level of education: deemed to be a consequence of “the imperfect [transnational] transferability of human capital,” a myriad of migrant workers are underpaid and overqualified for their current occupations.¹ While this may be attributed to the lack of access to certain jobs due to language barriers in non-Spanish-speaking countries like the UK, Latin American migrants in Spain remain underemployed even though they share a language. This community is also subject to discrimination through verbal attacks (like the use of racial slurs such as sudaca which denigrate their ethnic background) and even physical attacks. When superiority complexes like this exist, even speaking Spanish with a certain accent can allow for a power imbalance between employers and employees.
In addition to racial discrimination, migrants are prone to temporary employment which segregates them into insecure and volatile sectors, making them the “disposable” labor buffer that is argued to uphold the European flexicurity model.² These temporary and unofficial contracts very quickly become exploitative under a precarious immigration status where fear of deportation can lead to being overworked and underpaid. Many report signing contracts for certain hours and being paid less than what was agreed on at the end of the month.³
The intersectional component that gender adds is also recognized as an inherent part of the female migrant experience, given that women earn lower wages, have less bargaining power, and receive motherhood penalties. On the True Currency podcast, an Ecuadorian woman living in London shares that she was fired after returning from leave for a high-risk pregnancy. However, it was her membership in a union that gave her access to a community of women in similar positions, which came together to fight for fair contracts, helping her regain her job and protect other employees from wrongful termination.
Finding Relief: The Role of Local Resources & Unions
While the lived realities can be harsh, there have been efforts to ensure that migrants are not alone. For example, there are several organizations that work to fight the exploitation of migrants in the labor market in Barcelona. From the side of the city government, there is the “Servei d'Atenció a Immigrants, Emigrants i Refugiats” (Service of Attention to Immigrants, Emigrants, and Refugees or SAIER), which works on providing information about immigration, international protection, emigration, and voluntary return. In particular, they offer basic information on these topics but also help to bring people in contact with other agencies that work on more specific issues immigrants may face. Consequently, they are well-connected with other organizations helping immigrants in Barcelona, such as the Red Cross or the Associació d’Ajuda Mútua d’Immigrants a Catalunya (Mutual Aid Association of Migrants in Catalunya or AMIC).
In London, a central role is assumed by the “London Strategic Migration Partnership” (LSMP). They provide policy coordination and work with migrant organizations in an advisory panel (Migrant & Refugee Advisory Panel – MRAP) to reduce barriers that migrants face in accessing services. One topic the city places a lot of emphasis on is homelessness among migrants for which another advisory panel was established - the Homeless Migrants Advisory Panel (HMAP). In general, the city government of London is mostly concerned with informing migrants about legal procedures and the work of NGOs on the ground, while the one in Barcelona is more directly involved in helping migrants, arguably a result of a more developed infrastructure of NGOs in London.
In Barcelona, AMIC's work is especially relevant, given that the organization was founded at the Unió General de Treballadors de Catalunya (General Workers Union of Catalunya or UGT) headquarters in 1993 when the Schengen system imposed the EU visa system on migrants from third countries and still works in close cooperation with them. The relationship between immigrants and labor unions is not always an easy one since immigrants are sometimes regarded as unwanted competition for native workers, thus, they are not being recruited as union members. However, members of the UGT and other collaborators decided to create an association that should support non-nationals in social and judicial matters. Since its establishment, it has been working on the full social, political, and labor integration of immigrants and a society where the rights of all workers are respected – independently of their country of origin. The organization also informs migrants about their social and labor rights and provides counseling about issues of education, work, and the recognition of completed education. Furthermore, it executes campaigns to inform the public about specific issues connected to immigration, such as the situation of domestic workers, the exploitation of migrant workers, and the right to vote.
In London, several service jobs are being “outsourced” to immigrants, primarily cleaning, catering, portering, and security. Employers in these sectors frequently take advantage of the fact that migrant workers are unaware of their rights or are too dependent on their job to defend themselves against exploitative practices. “United Voices of the World” is a trade union that focuses on the most vulnerable groups of precarious and low-paid migrant workers in the UK. They fight for a London living wage for all, as well as full sick pay, dignity, equality, and respect. Ultimately, they aim to overcome the racial segregation of the workforce that pits workers against each other.
Female Migrants & Domestic Work
Finally, there are organizations working specifically on the issues female migrants face. This is especially urgent in Barcelona because many migrant women are domestic workers and work as caretakers for people they live with, making them highly vulnerable to exploitation. “Women's Support and Information Points” (PIAD) provide legal advice for women that covers issues of immigration law, employment rights, domestic violence, and eviction procedures. They also provide legal advice and support for city organizations and professionals working with women and organize free workshops on these issues. Another notable organization is “Mujeres Pa’lante.” They work on connecting women from different countries in Barcelona and provide psychological and judicial counseling, as well as occupational training courses that also cover basic knowledge in Catalán and Spanish, information about one’s labor rights in Spain, and guidance on how to find a job.
Mistreatment of domestic workers is also an important issue in London. “Kalayaan” is a charity that was established by migrant domestic workers in 1987. At that time, domestic workers were brought into the country informally and if they left their employer, for example, due to unpaid wages, there was no formal recognition of how they entered the country. Thus, they typically depend on their employers for housing, immigration status, and employment. The organization provides advice and support to domestic workers and produces data and briefings on their situation to push for policy changes.
The provision of these services is important not only because they defend the human rights and integrity of these workers, but also indirectly benefit the greater communities in which they reside. Latin American migrants are reinvigorating neighborhoods in Spain and the UK alike, and provide many essential services that locals and tourists depend on. They are the go-to “manitas” or handymen of many Spanish households, chefs of beloved local restaurants, care workers that look after the youngest and oldest of these countries, and the owners of small businesses that add to the soul of local communities. Their labor often makes daily life possible, and its absence would be undoubtedly felt.
If you are interested in learning more about these organizations and hearing the stories of some Latin American migrants, we can highly recommend you check out the following resources:
¹Kalfa, Eleni and Piracha, Matloob, Immigrants' Educational Mismatch and the Penalty of Over-Education. IZA Discussion Paper No. 7721, http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2363208
²Meardi, G., Martín, A., & Riera, M. L. (2012). Constructing Uncertainty: Unions and Migrant Labour in Construction in Spain and the UK. Journal of Industrial Relations, 54(1), 5–21. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022185611432388
³McIlwaine, C. and Bunge, D. (2019), Onward Precarity, Mobility, and Migration among Latin Americans in London. Antipode, 51: 601-619. https://doi.org/10.1111/anti.12453