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Spain: tiny foreign island of 'full' employment in Catalonia

Spain: tiny foreign island of 'full' employment in Catalonia
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The small town of Guissona in the interior of Catalonia has more foreigners than Spaniards, a first in Spain, and it is thriving. How?

The total population has risen to 7,000 thanks to the agro-food cooperative Guissona founded more than 50 years ago.

In the year 2000, in spite of the economic crisis, it started hiring workers from eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America.

We see how this rural area integrates many foreigners without the social problems of other parts of Europe.

European parliament elections

Every day, 5,500 pigs, 500 sheep, 150 calves and 100,000 chickens are delivered alive to the vast Grup Alimentari Guissona abbatoire. Shiftworkers from three continents transform the animals into meat and packaged meals. This will be distributed to the group’s network of supermarkets in eastern Spain.

The group employs 4,000 people, 40 percent of whom are foreigners.

Ukrainians and Romanians are by far the most numerous, then come Bulgarians. They began working together at Guissona soon after 2000. Many also come from sub-saharan Senegal and Morocco, and Latin America — Colombians.

Two million legs of ham are curing in the warehouse. Ukrainian Oleksandr Voytovych is in charge. He came in 2000, like so many others looking for a decent job and salary. Not enough Spaniards were ready to move to this rural area.

Voytovych said: “The first Ukrainians who came told us there was work in this Spanish cooperative. I arrived with a contract. Two years later, my wife joined me. Now she also works in the coop. We’ve lived here for 14 years and now have two daughters, who were born here.”

The Ukrainians and Senegalese came to Guissona by word of mouth also. The Romanians and Colombians, on the other hand, were actively recruited, through intergovernmental agreements.

Masse Ndiave arrived from Senegal in 2003, after seasonal fruit harvesting. He’s in charge of daily cleaning. Till recently, he was the local Senegalese club president.

Ndiave said: “I’d like to start up a business in Senegal, and the coop should also think about that, to develop. To slow immigration down, entrepreneurs have to think about going to Africa. They should talk to governments to build up support for that. Otherwise, people are going to keep climbing the fences of Ceuta and Melilla!”

Since 2000, the town of Guissona has doubled in population, to 7,000. In 2010, it became the first place in Spain where more than half the inhabitants are foreigners.

To accommodate this strong growth, the agro-food company over the years created a network of savings banks and insurance structures, training courses, housing rental services for newcomers and social services such as a health centre and a retirement home.

Monica Vajdea, Romanian, is in charge of reception. She and her husband came in 2003. First she worked on the production line. Then she mastered Spanish and Catalan.

Vajdea said: “I don’t think about the future because I never thought I’d leave Romania. I didn’t imagine myself anywhere else. Life there might have been harder but I didn’t think of leaving. It was chance that brought us to Guissona. Now we’ve lived here for ten years. I don’t know what will happen one month from now, let alone ten years away. Plan ahead? I honestly don’t know.”

People from around 50 nationalities integrate here. The unemployment rate is exceptionally low: 5.5%.

The community’s become an economic-demographic success symbol in Europe. The mayor, Xavier Casoliva, of the pro-Catalan-independence left party, used to be a computer technician in the coop.

Casoliva said: “It’s funny: even the US consulate has been here to study the Muslims in Guissona who share the mosque. Catholics and Orthodox share the village church, that’s common. But not that all those different nationalities share the same mosque. The study was published by the US Congress, because if we can get on this well, we avoid extremism, which is what they’re worried about.”

Hundreds of refrigerator trucks leave each day, loaded with fresh produce, but also oil and water. They supply the brand’s more than 400 low-price supermarkets. Other produce is destined for export elsewhere in Europe.

Vicenç Batalla of euronews asked Guissona Human Resources Director Antonio Condal, who has been at the heart of the group’s expansion: “You’re in charge of recruiting, and you haven’t stopped hiring, in spite of the crisis. How have you managed to keep this up? How many people do you need each year?”

Condal said: “I remember in 2000 we asked the Spanish unemployment office for 200 people for the year. We got very little response. We found just 15 people, in the whole of Spain, between 15 and 20. And we needed 200, as well as 400 more in rotation. We were forced to think about recruiting from abroad. Now, in 2013 and 2014, it’s not the same. In 2013, for example, we got 13,000 applicants. Only ten percent were foreigners and 90 percent were Spanish. Recruitment was the same: ten percent from outside and 90 percent Spanish nationals. Total applications went from 2,400 in 2000 to 13,000, and those from within the country have risen by 50 to 90 percent.”