- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 22, 2009

ALMERIA, SPAIN (AP) - In the good old days of a very recent past, construction worker Antonio Montoya could afford two cars and a nice duplex for his family of six, with a sunny patio and pet canaries singing away.

Spanish real estate was booming, jobs were abundant, and as Montoya would drive past the unemployment office, he felt like he was gazing at another planet. “I would say to myself, I’d never be in that situation.”

Now, once a month, Montoya goes to that same office, catching a bus to save on gasoline, and joins the sullen, ever-growing line. He sniffs out job offers, signs for his 750-euro ($970) monthly benefit and goes back home, often to meals of leftovers.

“Imagine now, here I am at age 54, without a job,” Montoya says in disgust. “I don’t know how long I will be able to hold on.”

Almeria Province, a bone-dry patch of coastal southeast Spain, was once the setting for spaghetti westerns such as “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Later it became a place to make fortunes building sun-drenched vacation homes and golf courses. High-tech greenhouses sprang up, offering Europe a year-round source of fruit and vegetables.

Now, two years after the real estate bubble burst, the province is one of the gushing wounds in Spain’s recession-plagued economy.

Almeria’s unemployment rate of 25 percent is one of Spain’s highest, and makes the nationwide figure of 13.9 percent _ already the highest in the European Union _ seem mild.

As the global meltdown worsens, it offers a glimpse of where Spain may be heading. The government says unemployment nationally will reach 16 percent this year, and some forecasters say it may approach 20 percent.

In many ways Almeria mirrored the nationwide model of construction serving a key engine of more than a decade of solid and sometimes robust economic growth, until mortgage rates rose and credit conditions tightened.

At first glance, as in much of Spain, not much seems to be wrong in Almeria, the provincial capital. At midday, bars fill with people sipping a pre-luncheon glass of vermouth or beer, restaurants are packed and movie theaters do a decent business.

But “for sale” signs hang from apartment balconies. Many storefronts are shut and their windows whitewashed. Construction sites stand half-finished and abandoned.

On the outskirts of the city lies one particularly grim example: idle cranes next to the skeletons of two high-rise apartment buildings that were to be part of a huge subdivision with the chirpy name Pueblo de Luz, or City of Light. Its developer ran out of money.

Antonio Rosal, an official of the Spanish labor federation Comisiones Obreras, says his office in Almeria simply cannot keep up with all the mass-layoff cases his office is negotiating with Spanish companies. Under Spanish law, talks with unions on severance terms are mandatory.

Hard times are nothing new to those old enough to remember the economic stagnation of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, when Spain’s economy was a backwater closed to modernizing influences. It would take a decade of hard work to whip Spain into shape for its 1986 admission to the European Union, the economic engine that would turn it into the world’s eighth biggest economy.

Now, Rosal said, Almeria is realizing that many low-skill workers such as construction laborers overspent on houses and cars, believing the good times would last forever, but that its economy lacked a stable core of higher-level earners who could weather bad times.

“Here we have been living the high life for 10 years, and it turns out there was not as much of a middle class as we thought,” Rosal said. “To be honest, I don’t think we will ever get back to the way things were.”

Even when he was doing well, Montoya earned just 1,200 euros ($1,550) a month. But back then his four sons, all living at home and working in construction, chipped in and life was good.

Now, all of them are jobless, and three of them, aged 17 to 32, are still in the nest.

In all, the family lives on 1,150 euros ($1,480) a month from the state. Montoya’s mortgage payment eats up nearly half the sum and still has nine years to run.

The Spanish government has promised an 11 billion euro ($14.2 billion) economic stimulus package focused on infrastructure and wants to retrain redundant building workers like Montoya.

Under a program to help unemployed homeowners, Montoya can apply to cut his mortgage payment in half and start paying off the deferred part in two years. But he is wary, saying he doesn’t want to saddle his children with debts.

The government says 800,000 families in this nation of 40 million are like Montoya’s _ everybody unemployed.

Many economists say Spain’s economic growth lacked a solid foundation because it depended so heavily on construction and related industries. These accounted for up to 20 percent of GDP during real estate’s heyday, and now Spain needs a new model based on innovation and technology rather than bricks and mortar.

“The construction industry was like a train that dragged everything with it as it crashed,” said Sandalio Gomez, an economics professor at IESE Business School in Barcelona.

Now, Gomez said, one of Spain’s biggest problems is what to do with “the brick generation” _ hundreds of thousands of jobless, low-skill construction workers, both Spaniards and immigrants.

“These are people without resources and from a social point of view this creates tremendous pressure,” he said.

The inland Almeria town of Macael is also hurting badly. Its 50 quarries export high-quality white marble worldwide, and now have fewer customers.

Manuel Lopez, 63, who has never worked in anything else, looks out over the gouged side of a mountain and wonders how construction companies and builders imagined the good times would last forever.

“People wanted luxury houses, with marble counters, but all that is over,” Lopez said.

Even at Almeria’s greenhouses, which from the air resemble a vast sea of plastic, demand is not what it used to be.

Francisco Navas, whose greenhouses grow cucumbers and zucchini on an area equivalent to seven football fields, says things are picking up now, but last year he needed a bank loan.

“Before, trucks would come and load right up. But now companies are much more cautious. They order only what they need, and if they need more, they come back,” said Navas, who employs a staff of 12, all but one of them immigrants.

Back in his nicely appointed living room _ a big step up from his previous small, subsidized apartment _ Montoya bemoans his predicament.

His bank, facing its own credit crunch, has warned him not to miss a single mortgage payment lest he be judged in arrears and put on the path to foreclosure.

“This is a difficult situation, but we keep fighting,” Montoya said. “We look for work every day.”

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