by Thierry Jacolet
The beleaguered Portuguese economy is forcing thousands of nationals to move abroad. Many are seeking work in Switzerland, but have to leave their families back home.
Austerity measures + low wages + recession + unemployment = massive emigration. The Portuguese are all too aware of this painful equation.
“In Portugal I was slowly dying; I had to leave,” explained José Rabacal, who arrived in Gruyère from Portugal last April.
He knows the picturesque western Swiss region well as he worked there for 15 years until 2004. That was when his wife’s uncle offered him a taxi driver job in Moncorvo in northern Portugal.
Rabacal moved back and took out a loan to buy a taxi but things started to go downhill after only two years.
“Many firms began to see their earnings slowly dry up,” said the 46-year-old taxi driver. “What’s more, taxes and the prices of consumer products went up. I lost €200 (SFr244) a month due to the increase in diesel.”
Rabacal’s mortgage shot up, consuming almost half his salary.
“At the end of the month I had nothing left so we stopped going out,” he said. With just €700-1,000 a month the family had to tighten its belt.
“In Portugal they say you need a belt with lots of holes to be able to tighten up even more.”
He finally decided enough was enough. Switzerland offered a better working option – but without his wife and two children.
After six years as a freelance taxi driver he has exchanged his taxi for a delivery van, working for a drinks company in Bulle in canton Fribourg. But he now lives on his own after staying briefly with his brother in Vevey.
With a salary that is “much more than what he earned in Portugal” he plans to stay in Switzerland for as long as necessary to meet his family’s needs.
“I miss them but I am here to ensure my 17-year-old daughter can continue her studies. But I don’t know how long I can last without them,” he said.
Manuel Leitao has also had to make sacrifices. The 39-year-old builder left his family in Porto to come to Switzerland this spring. He plans to stay until his two children are 18 – at least another six years.
Back in Portugal he found it impossible to make ends meet with just €600 a month, especially as he wasn’t earning a regular salary. Leitao held down a second job as a barman, taking home €90 on weekends.
“I was no longer able to pay the rent. And there wasn’t enough work every day. The situation in Portugal has become terrible. It makes me really sad. It’s shocking,” he said.
Leitao decided to head to Switzerland. He managed to get a job in a tiling firm via a friend in Bulle. Several weeks later his brother Henrique, 38, joined him. He took a risk as he was not sure of finding a job but after signing up at a temping agency he finally got a job on a construction site.
This was very different from his previous job in Portugal as vice-director of a small firm crushed by the economic crisis.
“Our politicians have not kept their promises. They are all the same, useless,” Manuel Leitao said.
Adriana Atanasio, 25, who comes from Pombal, is one of Portugal’s “lost generation” who have been demonstrating since March 2011. After graduating as a surveyor she found it hard to find work.
“Since July I haven’t found any work. It’s a nightmare. There are no jobs in the construction sector or in administration,” she said.
Rather than registering as unemployed for €360 a month, like 10.6 per cent of the population of her age, including her boyfriend, she preferred to take her chances in Switzerland.
“Many of my friends with qualifications have left,” she explained.
A friend in Fribourg has offered her a job at his cleaning firm and somewhere to stay until she is settled.
“But I count on pursuing my profession. Otherwise I risk losing what I’ve learned,” she said.
She said she might consider returning to Portugal “if the situation gets better – maybe in 20 years’ time”.
Portugal is witnessing a haemorrhaging of its population. Some 50,000-100,000 have left the country annually since the start of the economic crisis, especially nurses, psychologists, builders and painters.
Former Portuguese colonies Angola, Brazil and Mozambique are popular choices but Switzerland has a certain pulling power with its high salaries, quality of life and sizeable Portuguese community established here since the 1980s.
“The number of Portuguese job seekers has increased since mid-2010,” confirmed Bruno Gonçalves, head of the Manpower job agency branch in Fribourg.
“They represent half of the 70-100 people who come through our doors every day.”
He added that most do not have qualifications but have lots of work experience.
“It’s a workforce that is well appreciated and can be versatile. And there is a certain know how,” said Jean-Paul Remy, boss of the Start People job agency in Bulle.
(Adapted from French by Simon Bradley)