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Other people's trash

Lauren Frayer, Madrid
February 21, 2013

For unemployed immigrants to Spain, there's one last-resort "job" that sometimes pays more than minimum wage. It's dumpster diving, and it's particularly lucrative for former construction workers.

Berlin Sinti RomaImage: picture alliance/Wolfram Steinberg

On a Barcelona street, a well-dressed, middle-aged Spanish man averts his eyes from onlookers as he reaches his arm deep into a dumpster.

It's a scene that's become more common since the economic crisis hit Spain, plunging the country into Europe's deepest recession. According to Spain's National Institute of Statistics, unemployment currently stands at 26 percent.

But for those who have immigrated to Spain the number is closer to 35 percent, and of the thousands of Spaniards now searching through dumpsters by night, many are immigrants.

"Here, take a look at this!" one says in broken Spanish. "This is junk metal, but it's worth a bit of money."

The Pakistani immigrant arrived in Spain four years ago to work in construction. Shortly after he arrived the industry collapsed. He lifts a few unbroken eggs out of a crate in a separate dumpster for organic waste. But he concentrates his energy more on the plastic cables or copper wire. He worked construction just long enough to make contacts with builders who are seeking cheap materials.

"See this? This is expensive, this cable. This other stuff over here, not as much."

Social welfare

Last year, the Red Cross debuted a TV commercial across Spain. The ad shows a worried father rationing a single egg omelette into three portions to feed himself and his two children. "More people than you imagine need help in our country," a voice says.

The Red Cross says 300,000 people in Spain are vulnerable to hunger because of the economic crisis. Yet the vast majority of Spaniards do have access to unemployment benefits and food banks. If things get really desperate, it's also customary for relatives to take one another in. And the Catholic Church is still a big provider of charity.

But many of the men searching dumpsters are immigrants, without family ties in Spain. Some may be in Spain illegally and therefore have no access to welfare benefits which, despite government austerity measures, are still relatively generous.

Economist Fernando Fernandez, at Madrid's IE Business School, says Spain had a poor underclass even in the boom years.

People line up next to a brick building (Photo: EPA/FERNANDO VILLAR)
Unemployed people line up at a job center near MadridImage: picture alliance/dpa

"In any rich, developed economy there are pockets of need. And there are certainly [those pockets] in Spain and in Madrid these days. It is probably true too that to some extent, this has increased. If anything, because the organizations caring for people in need, are squeezed for resources," he said.

Better than robbery

As night falls, a half-dozen men join the Pakistani immigrant, all searching the same cluster of containers.

"Let's say you're lucky and you find a bar that's having some construction work done," says Mohammed Al-Awami, originally from Morocco. "And they need a big sheet of metal to cover the countertop. They might pay 80 cents a kilo. And they might buy up to 500 kilos - or at least 200. That's a lot of money for you." Even if that windfall comes just a few times a month, it adds up to more than Spain's minimum wage.

Al-Awami also used to work construction. Now he's one of what he estimates are 2,000 people searching dumpsters in downtown Barcelona every night.

"I used to build houses, do renovations, refurbish old historic homes and everything. But now that industry has nearly disappeared," he said.

A neighborhood scene has streets, lights, etc - save for houses (Photo by Mario Fourmy/ABACAPRESS.COM)
Valdeluz, one of Spain's many towns hit by the construction bustImage: picture alliance/abaca

Like many of his peers, however, he insists that he is not homeless - nor a criminal.

"Now it seems so much of humanity is without work or anything. So this is better than robbery, you know?"

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