Nearly every European country has a program that invites students and post graduates to teach their native language in primary and secondary schools for about a year. In Spain, the job title is “auxiliaries de conversación,” which means conversational assistant. Students in Spain not only have a chance to get used to a native accent and practice speaking English but they also get first hand exposure and a global connection to cultures that are ubiquitous in their media and that many of them admire. For the assistants, it’s usually their first real world job experience and in addition to being a great resume booster, they get the opportunity to immerse themselves in another culture and language. In theory every part of it is an excellent idea, but only when people are being paid.
The plummeting Spanish economy has caused mass pay shortages for several months for language assistants all over the country. The problem has especially been an issue in the autonomous communities of Andalucía, Valencia and Catalonia, where I currently work. Over a hundred kids like me went three months without seeing a single centímo from the government. The situation is understandable to a certain degree given the current global economic crisis, but what made it frustrating, aggravating, isolating, insufferable and unacceptable was the way it was handled. These incidents are significant, because they illustrate the type of money mismanagement and poor communication that got many European countries into this economic mess in the first place. If I could give advice to anyone considering applying to the program, it would be: Do not apply to this program in Spain. Until the world pulls itself out of this disaster, it’s safer to choose any other country that’s better off.
This is my second year doing this program and the first time I’ve ever faced a problem like this. I work in a small factory town outside of Barcelona called Santa Margarida i Els Monjos. It was close enough that I could live in the city and wake up three days a week at seven in the morning and have a one hour and fifteen minute train ride to the school. There were 216 language assistants in the region of Catalonia. They were divided into two groups based on their nationalities. Everyone from Europe and the United Kingdom got paid by the ministry of education in Madrid. At the start of the 2011-2012 school year, there were 109 assistants from France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom. The rest of the 107 assistants were paid through the government of Catalonia and were mostly Americans, but also from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This second group was the only one in Catalonia that failed to receive any money at all until the end of December.
Traveling to a foreign country for a year is already expensive and intimidating enough. The program doesn’t cover any expenses incurred before the first paycheck comes at the end of the first month. The assistants have to pay for their own plane tickets and then train tickets to get to their city from the airport. They have to find their own housing, so many spend a lot of money at hostels the first week. After buying a Spanish cell phone, it’s easy to burn through your credit calling apartment postings and meeting new friends. Then, when you do find an apartment, it isn’t unusual to have to pay a deposit and the first and last month’s rent. People are also forced to eat out at restaurants before they have a kitchen of their own. The first month is by far the most expensive and when I was first paid the year before at the end of October it was already an overwhelming relief then. And that was only after the first month.
The assistants were told that they would receive the first payment in the form of a check during the first week of November. However, at orientation the payment method was changed to a direct deposit into our bank accounts. When the first week of November came and passed, it was another week before any information was received about the situation. The reason that was given was that some assistants had been late turning in their paperwork to initiate the transfer into our accounts. The first official communication came from the secretary of educational politics on November 11th and stated “With respect to the scholarship, we have just received all of the documents (a week later than we had asked all of you)” and then stated that the payments would be made sometime in the middle of the month with no specific date. Then on November 23rd, the subdirector of the language department wrote that “only as of Monday the 21st of November has the last bank account document arrived from one of your fellow assistants.” When three assistants met in person with the department in December, they were told that not one, but actually four people didn’t turn in their forms until the very end of November. It was requested that documentation be shown that validated those claims, but they never produced any.
Waiting a couple of months for a paycheck wouldn’t have been as bad if we knew it was going to happen and could’ve planned accordingly. Knowing if you can afford to travel to France or buy a nice new winter coat can make the difference between being able to and not being able to pay your rent. For example, Valencia is a region that is in one of the worst financial situations in the country and their assistants were told that they would not be able to receive their first payment until the end of December. But they were told at the very beginning. What made the situation in Catalonia insufferable was the lack of communication and the manner with which it was handled that made us feel an absence of support from anyone in the government. We had the distinct impression that instead of sympathizing with us and doing whatever they could to help, we were causing problems for them and they wanted to avoid any and all blame. Each one of us felt the realization slowly dawning upon us that we were on our own in a foreign country with no money.
Many of our emails were just plain ignored. We compared the emails we did receive between us and many of them were cut and paste responses. There were several things that were repeated to us. The proper manner to direct complaints was through the coordinator and principal of our school. It was clarified that we were not government workers and it was not a job, but a “continuing educational opportunity” and we didn’t receive a paycheck, but a “scholarship” or an “allowance” like the kind a child might receive for doing chores. We were constantly told that the guide book said we were to “bring provisions of between 1,500 and 2000 euros.” The guide actually says “It would be convenient if you have around 1500/2000 euros” at the very bottom of one of the pages. After all of our expenses it might have been enough for one month and stretching it for two months, but three was impossible.
We were told that everyone had to be paid together in one group and there was no other way to process it. However, everyone paid through the Ministry of Education in Madrid were paid in three groups according to when they turned in their paperwork. When it wasn’t a problem with the paperwork, it was because they couldn’t get a response from the department of economy. When we talked to the department of economy they told us they never received a pay order from the department of education.
We were told that we could ask for a loan from our schools, but that it should be considered ‘personal help.’ My school had no money and their wages and budget were already set to be cut even further. It was also specifically referred to as a ‘personal problem.’ They also didn’t allow me any days off due to not having any money. When the personal problem began, I asked if they could call the department of education and also submit a formal complaint in writing. They managed to submit only a written complaint at the very end of December that I never got a chance to see.
After not being paid for a month and a half, everyone was faced with struggling to pay the rent and buy groceries and other basic necessities. Some of us had to borrow money from friends, significant others or parents, giving us our own personal debts. And that was only if we were lucky enough to know someone who would lend us money, which wasn’t the case for many people. In the middle of November, one of my friends got kicked out of his apartment, because he had not been able to pay his rent. He spent the rest of the month and all of December sleeping on a friend´s couch. At one point he couldn’t even afford a Metro ticket and had to seriously think about sneaking onto the train to go to work. Other assistants were also trying to complete their Master’s at universities in Barcelona and didn’t have time to seek private lessons to at least have some kind of income. Many people not only couldn’t afford to see their families at Christmas, but couldn’t afford to buy presents.
By the time December rolled around, we started organizing. I had been following the development of the Occupy Wall Street movements over the internet and wished that I could’ve been there. It gave me more motivation to get together the few of us that there were. I made a group on facebook and the group had its first official meeting. Many people had been angrily posting about doing a strike already, but in the end the group decided it would be useless and only result in termination. Language assistants were non-essential personnel in schools that could function without them. The group also decided that we wanted to keep our commitment to the students and didn’t want to deprive them of this opportunity because of something their government did. Various organizations were contacted, including the Ministry of Education in Madrid, the teacher’s union for Barcelona, trade union organizations, the Spanish students union, Spanish lawyers, and of course the embassies and consulates of our respective countries. Most of these were not readily responsive or couldn’t really offer any help. We also notified newspapers and television news programs about the story. Everyone in the government was bombarded with emails and tweets and the group even drafted a manifest that everyone signed and sent. Still, it seemed like there wasn’t really much that the group could do. When I met with a representative of the teacher’s trade union called the Conferderatión Sindicatal de Comisiones Obreras or CCOO, his best advice was that it wasn’t any one thing that would get us paid and, as many other people also recommended, it might be better if we didn’t tire ourselves out.
Communicating with several government officials at various levels also had me looking into the history and current economic state of Spain. After all that time, we still didn’t have an answer to the simple question of: why was this happening? No one knew anything conclusively, but Occam’s razor would point to the fact that it could simply be that Catalonia had no money.
In Spain, the central government has a complicated relationship with its autonomous communities. The current political system was established after the rule of dictator Fransisco Franco ended in 1975. Throughout my time in Spain, it seemed to me that nearly every modern Spanish creative work I came across at the movie theater or in art galleries or in the bookstore had been affected in one way or another by the Spanish civil war. It is especially evident in Catalonia, where the culture and native language of Catalan were repressed and prohibited during Franco’s regime. As a result, autonomy became a very important issue after he lost power. It’s evident everywhere in the streets of Barcelona as all of the signs are in Catalan and people are more likely to speak to you in Catalan even if you speak to them in Spanish first. One of the first things that all the auxiliaries talked about between us was how we discovered that many people in Catalonia wanted it to be its own country. The same is true for many other regions of Spain. Just the fact that they are specifically called ‘autonomous communities,’ and not ‘states’ or ‘regions,’ demonstrates this mentality.
Up until the crisis, Spain was very prosperous and seemed as if things were only going to continue that way.¹ I write a lot of music journalism independently and I interviewed the local Barcelona band Za! that quite succinctly told me, “we were at a point in history where we thought that a utopia would become reality. The idea was that everyone could have enough work and flats, but this isn’t possible.” It was an issue of expectations, “The problem isn’t the situation that we have now. The problem is what we thought that this could be.”² Even when 2008 came around and the crisis brought everyone down, Spain should have come out on top. Out of all of the countries in the European Union, Spain never borrowed any amount from other countries above the 3% limit and thus kept a low regional debt.³ Even in Catalonia, things seemed to be good. Mostly all of the auxiliaries that I spoke to all believed that Catalonia was one of the wealthiest regions with one of the best financial standings in Spain.
However, Catalonia only has one of the highest GDPs, which means they are one of the highest exporters of gross domestic products in Spain.⁴ Unfortunately, that says nothing about their debt. Catalonia had $30.3 billion of debt as of December 2010, which is 28% of all of Spain’s regional debt.⁵ One of the biggest contributions to the crisis in Spain was debts not from the national government, but rather from the private sector, especially the housing market,³ and the regional governments. For example, in Figueres, Catalonia, the government pays $1.3 million monthly to run the prison Puig de les Basses, which contains not a single prisoner. People refer to is as a ‘spa.’ The national government was continually uncovering what they call ‘hidden debt’ within the regions.⁶
However, Catalonia refuses to accept any of these claims and claims itself that restrictions with the national government’s financing system are to blame. In a statement issued to the times by the Minister of Economy, Adreu Mas-Colell, he seemed very concerned about his administration losing their autonomy, “not everyone in Spain is reconciled to the post-Franco transformation of the country. There is now the temptation, with the economic crisis as an excuse, to turn back the clock.”⁷ This might be a reaction to people making statements like 17 year old Adria Junyent, “There are all kinds of cuts. This didn’t even happen under Franco.”⁶ There’s fear that the current issue within the regions will lead to recentralization attempts by the national government. Even regions like Murcía, Valenica and Aragón suggested that the central government take back some of their responsibilities.⁸
This power struggle and the massive cuts instituted by the new Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy Brey⁹ that was elected in December, have forced the regions to take drastic measures. Thousands of public workers like hospital workers and substitute teachers went without pay in December. At the end of the month all teachers in the region saw a drastic cut in their pay and their Christmas bonuses withheld, without notice.⁹ People were losing jobs. Currently, more than five million people in Spain are unemployed; more than half of 16-24 year olds do not have jobs.¹⁰ And 100 language assistants went without pay for three months.
The efforts of the language assistant’s union resulted in a meeting with two people in charge of our program in the department of education. Three language assistants went and spent two hours discussing the situation. We had prepared in Spanish, but for some reason they took the lead with English. The three assistants left feeling exhausted, disappointed, and defeated with no new information. The two heads of foreign language services reiterated that the fault was not with the department, but with the few that hadn’t turned in their paperwork. They were also informed of the resignation procedure and that we did not have the legal capacity to strike.
On the same day, a group of assistants got together at the department of economy with signs and cardboard posters. The small event was filmed and a short piece was produced by one of the language assistants. The person they met with at the department told them that the problem wasn’t with their department, because they had never received a pay order from the department of education. However, another assistant managed to get in touch directly with Andreu Mas-Colell’s office and received an email explaining that October and November’s payment was scheduled for the 22nd of December and that the delay was caused by liquidity problems.
The group did two newspaper interviews and one television interview. One newspaper article never made it to print and the second was due to come out the day we got paid. The night before the story was set to run, the government called the newspaper and gave them the information that we were going to be paid. The journalists were frantically trying to get in touch with our group, posting on facebook and sending emails, for a statement before the piece went to print. The result was an article that was a little uneven, but explained that our struggle was over and portrayed the government quite negatively, although not necessarily unfairly. The article made it seem like the reason that we had been paid was because of the intervention of the American Embassy that also met with both departments on the same day that we did.
On December 21st, every assistant received a personal email from three people in the department of education and one email from the foreign language services email account that said we would be paid the following day as “fruit of the intense negotiations by the department of education.”
In January, we didn’t get paid for December and received no notices from anyone in the government. When contacted, the department of education said it was a problem with the department of economy and that they had no information about when we would be paid for any future date. The department of economy insisted that the question had to be addressed to the department of education. Their intervention at the end of December had only been because of “the extreme urgency of the situation and the date we were at (Christmas).” It seemed that not much had changed. In January, as a response to the huge debt problem within the regions, the national government rushed aid to them in the form of $10 billion euros.⁸ Even after Catalonia had this in its pockets, the language assistants didn’t get paid. Stories started filtering in from across the country as well. Such as from Valencia, where a large number of people had their applications for identification rejected and were told they had to return to the US to get a new visa. Many interpreted this as an attempt to get people to quit. Many people in Catalonia did quit at the start of the new year and I considered doing the same and finding a job with a private English academy. However without any prior notification, on February 1st many assistants received December’s pay. The department of education had to ask me via twitter if I had been paid, because they had no idea that it had even happened. The language assistants will have to wait and see what will happen in the future and many officials say that things do not look good, even if they can’t say why or how.
What should have been a carefree European experience turned into a stressful lesson about forming unions, about fighting governments, about how to survive on very little amounts of money and about injustice. Although, at the end of it all, I suppose it’ll be good experience to have. When we started uniting, a few names for our organization were thrown out there. In light of the demonstrations all over the United States, one of them was Occupy Spain. That name never seemed quite right though, because at the bottom of everything that was the whole point and allure of the program, to live in Spain. Now, it hardly seems like the same italicized fantasy. But, I’m still occupying Spain and I expect to get every single centímo I have coming to me.
¹ (2012, January 20). Spain. Retrieved from The New York Times: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/spain/index.html
² Stepien, L. (2012, January 23). Interview: Za! Retrieved from Mango Nebula.: http://mangonebula.blogspot.com/2012/01/interview-za.html
³ (2011, December 22). What Really Caused the Eurozone Crisis? Retrieved from BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-16301630
⁴ La Generalitat de Catalunya. (2011, October). The Government of Catalonia, A Two Minute Guide. Retrieved from the website for La Generalitat de Catalunya: http://www20.gencat.cat/docs/economia/Documents/Arxius/Deute_Public/Two-minute_guide.pdf
⁵ Minder, R. (2011, March 31). Deficits in the Regions Cause Fears About Spain’s Future. Retrieved from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/01/business/global/01catalonia.html?_r=1&scp=6&sq=catalonia&st=cse#h
⁶ Daley, S. (2011, December 30). As Spain Acts to Cut Deficit, Regional Debts Cause Woe. Retrieved from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/31/world/europe/as-spain-trims-deficits-scrutiny-falls-on-regional-governments.html?pagewanted=1&sq=catalonia&st=cse&scp=9
⁷ Mas-Colell, A. (2012, January 10). Spain’s Debt: The View from Barcelona. Retrieved from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/11/opinion/spains-debt-the-view-from-barcelona.html?_r=1&scp=4&sq=catalonia&st=cse
⁸ Daley, S. (2012, January 19). Spain’s Central Government to Rush Aid to Financially Ailing Regions. Retrieved from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/20/world/europe/spanish-regional-governments-to-get-aid.html
⁹ Cué, C. (2011, December 16). Rajoy Talks of “Unpleasant” Measures to Fulfil Deficit-Reduction Commitment. Retrieved from El País: http://www.elpais.com/articulo/english/Rajoy/talks/of/unpleasant/measures/to/fulfil/deficit-reduction/commitment/elpepueng/20111216elpeng_3/Ten
¹⁰ Burridge, T. (2012, January 12). Spain’s unemployment total passes five million. Retrieved from BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-16754600