Many in Spain clinging to jobs without pay

Spaniards at an unemployment office in La Coruna. Many keep working at jobs despite sometimes not being paid.
Spaniards at an unemployment office in La Coruna. Many keep working at jobs despite sometimes not being paid.

VALENCIA, Spain — Over two years, Ana Maria Molina Cuevas, 36, has worked five shifts a week in a ceramics ­factory, hand-rolling paint onto tiles. But at the end of the month, she often went unpaid.

Still, she kept showing up. If she quit, she reasoned, she might never get her money. And besides, where was she going to find another job? Last month, she was down to about $130, with a mortgage payment due.

‘‘On the days you get paid,’’ she said at home with her disabled husband and young daughter, ‘‘it is like the sun has risen three times. It is a day of joy.’’


Molina, who is owed about $13,000 by the factory, is hardly alone. Being paid for the work you do is no longer something that can be counted on in Spain, as the country struggles through its fourth year of economic crisis. With regional and municipal governments deeply in debt, even workers like bus drivers and health care attendants are not always paid.

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But few workers in this situation believe they have any choice but to stick it out. None wanted to name their employers. They try to manage with occasional checks and partial payments on random dates. Spain’s unemployment rate is the highest in the eurozone, at more than 25 percent. And despite the government’s labor reforms, the rate has continued to rise.

‘‘Before the crisis, a worker might let one month go by, and then move on to another job,’’ said Jose Francisco Perez, a lawyer who represents unpaid workers. ‘‘Now that just isn’t an option. People now have nowhere to go and they are scared. They are afraid even to complain.’’

No one keeps track of workers like Molina. But the courts have become jammed with people trying to get back pay from a government insurance fund.

In Valencia, the unemployment rate is 28.1 percent, and the courts are so overwhelmed that processing claims takes three to four years.


Since the start of the crisis in 2008, the insurance fund has paid nearly 1 million workers back pay or severance. In 2007, it paid 70,000 workers. It is on track to pay more than 250,000 this year, and experts say the figures would be much higher if not for the logjam in the courts.

Often the unpaid workers, like Molina, whose company is in bankruptcy proceedings, hope their labor will keep a struggling operation afloat over the long run.

Unemployment benefits last only two years, they point out. But in the meantime, they cannot even claim unemployment benefits.

The regional government would not address the dimensions of the problem, when questions were submitted in writing. Its statement said it was doing its best to pay its debts.

More than 300,000 companies have gone bankrupt in Spain over the last few years.


Molina said she has sometimes used her credit card to pay her mortgage. But she considered herself luckier than most. At least her family has been able to lend her money.

Still, she has to fight off the anger. ‘‘I try not to let it get to me and, overall, not to pass the bitterness on to my family,’’ she said. ‘‘That’s not going to feed us.’’