In lieu of money, jobless Spanish exchange time | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 09.10.2012
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In lieu of money, jobless Spanish exchange time

Amid mass unemployment and insecurity over the euro, a parallel economy is evolving in Spain. It's based on time banks, where services are exchanged in a barter-style system. DW met with some of the people using them.

Lola Sanchez lives in the Spanish capital Madrid with her teenage son, Jose Antonio, who has cerebral palsy. He can't walk or talk, and tasks as simple as getting into a car are essentially impossible without assistance.

After saving money for years, Sanchez was finally able to buy a car refitted with a mechanical ramp and space for a wheelchair in the back. A nurse used to come each day to help operate the ramp, but that was before the government's austerity program took effect. The family does, however, still get a small check every month.

"But what we really need is physical help - much more so than financial assistance. Because I can't physically lift my son on my own anymore."

Earlier this year, Sanchez joined a local time bank - which sends members to help with her son's care. But she doesn't pay for them. Instead, she reciprocates by using her handicapped-friendly car to transport other disabled people in her community.

"To go to the doctor, or any other errands they have trouble doing, because it's difficult for them to go by bus or metro."

Temporal currency

With unemployment hardening at levels over 25 percent, many Spaniards have more time than money to spend. In the past two years, the number of time banks in Spain has doubled, to nearly 300. Most have anywhere from 50 to 400 members. And among these members, equality is the most important concept of all, Sanchez told DW.

"For me, it's important to know that my time has the same value as anyone else's. There's no difference between one hour of work for a computer specialist or a cleaning woman."

Karl Marx

The time bank concept can be traced back to Karl Marx

Time banks originated among 19th-century European socialists who emphasized the direct link between their labor and what they could get for it. But nowadays most time banks operate online. You register for a profile that lists your work skills and services you can offer, as well as tasks you're looking for someone else to do for you.

"You can offer anything you can imagine! You can fix a car, or paint a wall, or cook some food - or even clean the windows."

Jose Luis Herranz helped start the time bank Sanchez belongs to in Madrid, late last year. The 27-year-old monitors the barter of services among members, and logs their hours online. For people who don't have access to a computer, they can fill out a slip and deliver it to the local neighborhood association.

About one-third of the members are unemployed. And amid constant government cutbacks, Herranz says the time bank gives people much more than just much-needed work.

"We're feeling now that we can't trust governments or administrations. We have to trust each other, to create solidarity networks. We feel we are alone, and we have to help each other."

Tax evasion?

Julio Gisbert is a conventional banker, but spends his spare time as a consultant to time banks across Spain. He helps them avoid accusations of tax evasion, because these people pay no income tax on the work they provide.

"One of the rules is that the services exchanged can't be continuous and indefinite. Imagine you're a time banker who teaches English, and someone wants classes each week. In theory, the time bank can't do that. Because an English language academy can come along and denounce you. They're paying tax, and you're not…"

So the services must be sporadic to be legal. But that doesn't stop some time bankers from working over 20 hours a week, in a variety of odd jobs.

Time banks are especially useful in Spain, where traditionally close families have been fractured by urbanization in the past generation - and now, unemployment.

"It's a question of reconstructing the sense of community that used to exist in Spanish villages in the old days - which doesn't exist here in the city," Gisbert said.

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Back inside a neighborhood association office in Madrid, José Luis Herranz, the time bank organizer, is getting his 55-year-old mother, Maribel, involved.

"I was born here in this neighborhood, and, wow! How things have changed."

A housewife all her life, Maribel is working outside the home for the first time. Side-by-side with younger neighbors who've been laid off from their jobs, she gives cooking lessons, and does elderly residents' grocery shopping for them.

The neighorhood's unemployment rate is at an all time high. But these neighbors have nevertheless found a way to be productive.

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