x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Young, qualified and unemployed, Spanish protesters express anger at economic plight

Protesters in Spain who have occupied squares in a way that echoes Egypt's Tahrir Square, call themselves 'indignados', the angry, their fury aimed at economic, social and political problems, rather than at one leader or one party.

MADRID // Sara Lopez Martin is well-qualified. She holds a PhD in political science from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain's most prestigious educational institution. She has specialised in legal issues affecting social movements, and she has co-founded an internet service provider. She is 31 years old.

Despite her ability and experience, however, Ms Martin has not had a full-time job since January. Before that, she could not find a job that remotely fit her hard-earned qualifications.

Because she was previously employed, she still receives €400 (Dh2,100) a month in unemployment benefits but she is eligible for only two more months.

"I sent out thousands of CVs. I would have preferred to work at the university but there has been a hiring stop since 2005. I applied for jobs at companies, in marketing, as a secretary, anything. In the end, I took jobs at burger places and my last one was for a pizza delivery service. But even those jobs I cannot get anymore," she said while staffing a legal-aid booth at an encampment of protesters in Madrid's Puerta del Sol square.

Ms Martin does not expect miracles from the protests in Spain. But she is hopeful that young people will now at least undertake a conversation about how to shape their collective future. "Nobody here used to talk about politics," she said.

The protesters in Madrid and elsewhere in Spain, who have occupied squares in a way that faintly echoes Egypt's Tahrir square, call themselves "indignados" - the angry. Yet their fury is mostly contained and is aimed at economic, social and political problems, rather than at one leader or one party.

Some politicians have dismissed them as merely "perros flauta", or whistling dogs. Their critics promote an image of the protesters as unwashed travellers who play guitar, bang on drums and play flutes. Some Madrid businessmen talk about "dirty hippies" and, indeed, at times the beer-swilling, hash-smoking crowd seems more indigent than indignant.

But many come from what should be Spain's bright, youth-led future. Apart from the students who take part in the demonstrations, there are many unemployed or underemployed academics and professionals who have seen their hopes dashed by a devastating financial and economic crisis and soaring unemployment.

There is 37-year-old Marcos, a graphic designer who became unemployed when the company where he worked went bankrupt two years ago. He lost his apartment and his wife. "We have a saying here, 'When the money goes out the door, love follows through the window," Marcos said. He now shares a room in the suburbs with a relative.

There is also 27-year-old Alejandro, who has an administrative position with the military police. But the post does not pay enough for him to start his own life and he lives with his parents. In whatever spare time he has, he helps out in their travel agency because they can no longer afford to pay their employees, he said.

Ms Martin straddles both worlds; that of the educated, should-be professional class and of the alternative lifestyle crowd that is also in evidence. But she also lives in a squat and is part of a collective that grows its own organic vegetables on a patch of land outside Madrid that they are squatting on.

"It was both a choice and a necessity," she said about her alternative lifestyle. She started squatting nine years ago when rents and food prices rose dramatically, she said, after Spain's conversion to the euro. "By 2005 I was not able to live off the €900 a month that I was earning, while before 2001 I lived easily on €300."

Like many young Spaniards, especially students, Ms Lopez Martin does not live with her parents, who were divorced when she was 10. Born in what she describes as a working-class neighbourhood of Jaen, a town in rural Andalusia, her childhood was one of relative poverty and no holidays.

At 16 she ran off to Madrid and earned money by cleaning houses, working in restaurants and doing telemarketing while she was pursuing her studies. When the economic situation took a turn for the worse, she responded by joining collectives that function as large, loose-knit families, where a few people earning a salary can provide enough for all.

But it is a far cry from the life she thought she would have as the first educated member of her family. "I thought I would be better off than my parents but it is actually worse," she said.

Upon finishing her studies in 2007, she and a group of friends founded an internet service provider (ISP) that catered specifically to cash-strapped, often marginal movements, such as green, feminist and youth groups. Her ISP attracted 1,300 customers, in part because it refused the police access to its data, she said.

The company generated just enough money to pay three out of the 10 people who ran it. Late last year, it folded under the strain of the economic crisis as more and more clients could no longer afford to pay.

For Ms Martin, it was another blow and one that she is afraid will affect her for some time. "I am getting older and this is not an easy life with the collective in a squat. I may want to leave at some point and have my own life, but I am afraid that is not going to be possible."