From Wed Aug 14 10:30:10 2002
From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: Sleepwalkers of Portugal
Date: Wed, 14 Aug 2002 15:39:05 +0200 (CEST)

Eastern European immigrants exploited

By Hervé Dieux, Le Monde diplomatique, August 2002

Sleepwalkers of Portugal

The European Union, alarmed by the rise of the far right, wants to suppress illegal immigration. But waves of poor emigrés will go on arriving as employers take advantage of their precarious status to drive down wages and circumvent labour laws. In Portugal the building trade is exploiting skilled workers from Eastern Europe.

The lost look in their eyes betrays their desire to slip away into the countryside; their crumpled plastic bags give away their precarious status as itinerant workers. There are other signs of their discreet presence: Russian tabloids at newsstands at the Cais do Sodré train station (a stone's throw from the Tagus river) or the Cyrillic-alphabet ads in a money transfer office: “Send money and feel closer to your loved ones.” The “sleepwalkers” (1) are prowling the Rossio, Lisbon's main square, site of so many political demonstrations.

They come from many places, including Portugal's former African colonies, which gained their independence after the Carnation revolution of 1974-1976. But many more Romanians, Moldavians, Russians and Ukrainians are now making their way to Portugal in search of a better life - and finding exploitation and fear.

“The Ukrainians are Portugal's third-largest foreign community, behind the Cape Verdeans and the Brazilians. They’re more numerous than the Guineans or the Angolans,” says Tatiana Komlichenko Gomes, an administrator at a job centre in Lisbon's business district. Ms Gomes finds her compatriots jobs in industries, particularly building. East European migrants, mainly from Ukraine, are often highly trained; one couple were both doctors, but the wife now works in the plastics industry and the husband is a construction worker.

“As a migratory hub, Portugal's economic development relies on intensive labour exploitation. This is unusual in Europe, since Portugal is a country of both massive emigration and immigration,” says Carlos Trindade, an official with the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers. Although great waves of emigration depopulated certain regions of Portugal during the years of the Salazar dictatorship (1932-1968), this tapered off in the early 1990s. Still, more than 4m Portuguese who live abroad (2) represent almost 40% of Portugal's 10m inhabitants, according to the 2001 census. The pattern of emigration has now reversed and there has been a net inflow since 1993. East European migrants will soon outnumber the traditional influx from Portuguese-speaking countries.

Portugal's wage levels either entice people or scare them away. Every year tens of thousands of mainly unskilled Portuguese workers try their luck in Germany, Switzerland, France and Spain's Basque country. This is unsurprising since average monthly wages in Portugal ($648) are more than three times lower than in Germany ($2,250). Even though consumer prices and rents now equal European averages, Portugal's monthly minimum wage ($339) is only half of that of Greece ($616).

“Technically and legally, Portuguese workers in other European countries are no longer classified as emigrants,” says Trindade angrily. “This is misleading since they work full-time. Taking advantage of the low unemployment rate, Portuguese employers have encouraged labour substitution, letting Portuguese union members emigrate while promoting immigration.” Simplistic interpretations of macroeconomic indicators often take the place of sociological analysis or social programmes. Given its high growth rate over the past decade and its unemployment rate (one of the EU's lowest), Portugal hopes to raise its average per capita income to 80% of EU levels by the conclusion of the third and final EU structural funds programming period in 2006.

Judging by the European commission's statistics, something has gone awry over the last 15 years in the allocation of structural funds, specifically the cohesion fund (3). Regional economic convergence has proved much harder to achieve than convergence between countries. Portugal's big wage inequalities are compounded by its widening and worrying regional imbalances (4). The country's economic development has stalled, and insufficient foreign capital is only one of many factors, though proponents of greater foreign investment argue otherwise. Although total foreign investments—2.5% of Portugal's gross domestic product in 1998—exceed EU structural funds transfers (2% of annual GDP), they are less than emigrants' remittances—nearly 3% of GDP in 1998.

‘Slave labour’

“In relative terms, Portugal is much like its European partners were during reconstruction after the second world war. The construction sector is booming,” says Inácio Mota da Silva of Portugal's labour inspectorate, explaining the soaring numbers of construction workers, primarily East European migrants. The interests of the powerful building lobby and the public works department are at odds with those of impoverished migrants, who face extremely bad working and housing conditions.

How do socially conscious observers feel? Julia Franco and João Diogo Lima both work at a professional institute that offers Portuguese language courses to East Europeans. In their view the situation is unambiguous: “The Portuguese generally view East European emigrants as professional and disciplined. But they also look on them as slave labour. And in spite of Portugal's shortage of qualified workers, nothing has been done to tap into the potential of these migrants, even though many are engineers, doctors or technicians. They often fall victim to unscrupulous lawyers who offer to help them get residence permits and end up bleeding them for a few more euros, or to subcontractors who run off with their pay cheques or even to their own mafias.”

Sergei, 25, left his wife and daughter behind in Ukraine, where he worked as an electrician. He decided to answer one of the ubiquitous help-wanted ads that depict Portugal as a peaceful and sunny El Dorado. “The trip lasted four days and we ended up in Spain,” he says. “We immediately had to pay $300 to the local mafia, which was responsible for getting us into Portugal and finding us work. But the mafia frequently has employers dismiss new workers after only a month. Then another mafioso shows up and offers to lend the fired worker $100. That's when the blackmail, threats and violence begins.”

Sergei was not lucky enough to be let go so quickly. He spent five months in the Algarve, working six days a week, 10 hours a day, as a mechanic for the Portuguese subsidiary of a large American company. He earned 80,000 escudos a month ($400) but had no working papers. His employer repeatedly refused his requests for regularisation, which would have freed him from his blackmailers. Sergei finds it more profitable to go through the job centre, even though its tactics are ruthlessly competitive. He now lives secretly in Lisbon at an emergency shelter. Without working papers or a job, he has decided to risk his life by not repaying his debt to the mafia. “Of the Ukrainians living in Portugal, 80%-90% are scared for their lives,” he says (5). This can lead to terrible distress.

Last summer on the Avenida da Republica, Lisbon's pedestrian thoroughfare, a 29-year-old Ukrainian, who had arrived a few days before, held the manager of a café hostage for nearly 45 minutes, attracting 200 people. It took some time to translate his demands, punctuated by shouting and tears. He had been robbed of his meagre savings by a group of his compatriots and he was desperate. Fearing for his life and wanting to return to his country, he called the police. When officers arrived to negotiate his peaceful surrender, they were forced to protect him from the crowd, which wanted to lynch him.

During Portugal's EU presidency in the first half of 2000, António Vitorino, the European justice and home affairs commissioner, said: “Maintaining and expanding a zone for liberty, security and justice while increasing respect for fundamental rights will undoubtedly be one of Europe's greatest challenges” (6). His remarks went unheeded in his own country since the Portuguese government's main response to the wave of migration was to institute a regularisation programme, which continued until late last year.

Everyone recognises that the East Europeans are willing and dedicated workers, and judging by their comments, many Portuguese feel sympathy towards them. This may explain why the East Europeans have not had to contend with the anti-foreigner attacks against the African and Gypsy communities. By some accounts the East Europeans may even be experiencing positive discrimination, which will only fuel the resentment felt by the children of Portugal's African immigrants. Struggling to overcome the exploitation their parents faced, this second generation feels cheated, with true integration a distant dream.


(1) José Cardoso Pires, Lisbonne, livre de bord. Gallimard, Paris, 1998.

(2) Almost 75% of Portuguese emigrants live primarily in three countries: the US (1.2m), Brazil (1m) and France (700,000).

(3) Set up under a special provision of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty to help reduce disparities between rich and poor member countries and to enable the four least prosperous EU members to participate in a “cohesive” way in the final phase of economic and monetary union.

(4) With one-third of the population, the Lisbon capital region accounted for 45.6% of national GDP in 1999. In comparison, Alentejo, Portugal's largest region, accounted for only 4.1% of GDP.

(5) According to both diplomatic and police estimates, the numbers of potential mafia victims—and the related profits—are staggering. In addition to the 45,000 East Europeans with legal residency, some 150,000-200,000 illegals may be vulnerable to the people-smuggling rings, which are extremely violent and well established. In historical terms, these rings operate on a scale rivalling that of the slave trade between the Cape Verde islands and Brazil.

(6) Europa/Novas fronteras, Jacques Delors European Information Centre, Lisbon, June 2000.