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In it together: Gibraltar and Spain join forces for workers’ rights

The Spanish-Gibraltar frontier has always been vulnerable to political pressure, even to closure. So what is an ambitious group of eight cross-border trade unions doing to highlight the economic impact this is having on the region? Charlotte Simmonds finds out.

By Charlotte Simmonds

Gibraltar juts downward from the Spanish coastline like a dagger into the Mediterranean. Its tip points south towards the Moroccan coast; its western edge hugs the curve of the Bay of Gibraltar.

A narrow neck of land known as “the frontier” (la frontera in Spanish) connects this 2.3-square-mile, water-bounded territory to its neighbour. The movement of goods and people across the frontier has long been fractious and politically   vulnerable, most troublingly exemplified by General Franco’s closure of the border from 1969-85.

Once demarcated by no more than a sentinel’s outpost, the border today is gated and tightly controlled. Gibraltar sits outside the Schengen area, and frustrations at the frontier have risen afresh as more stringent inspections,  introduced by Spanish  officials last August, have on occasion unexpectedly resulted in queues of up to seven hours for vehicles and two hours for pedestrians.

The Spanish government cites the curtailing of tobacco smuggling (cigarettes are roughly 40 per cent cheaper in Gibraltar) as the reason behind increased checks and waiting times. While the controls have been deemed  intense but lawful  by inspectors from the  European Commission, a  bold voice has emerged to make a concerted call and lobby against the queues’ impact, not only on Gibraltarians and tourists, but also on the local Spanish economy.

This voice calls itself the Cross-Frontier Group (CFG). The CFG is a collective of eight business and trade unions – five Gibraltarian and three Spanish – speaking on behalf of the large (primarily Spanish) migratory workforce of the hinterland, thousands of whom are employed in Gibraltar and face daily passage across the frontier. The group says the stagnation of movement has measurably had an impact on trade and tourism on both sides of the border. On 7 January 2014, the eight groups signed a declaration that summed up the significance: “The current situation at the border is a severe impediment to the normal development of the social and economic relations which [the CFG] aspires to. Therefore we have made the normalisation of cross-border transit our first priority.”

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Gibraltar is a territory of transience. Its tiny local population of 30,000 is swelled annually by a stream of temporary visitors – Over 11 million arrived by land, air and sea in 2012. Included in these figures are the Spanish “frontier workers”. The government of Gibraltar reported 21,519 employees in the territory in 2012; roughly 10,000 of these are Spanish. A further 2,000 European citizens also come to Gibraltar for work.

The CFG has made its case to the UK All- Party Parliamentary Group on Gibraltar and the regional government of Andalusia.  In February, it lobbied in Brussels off the back of a dossier submitted to the European Parliament. The present situation does not reflect the EU’s commitment to the single market and freedom of movement, it says.

Frontier workers travelling into Gibraltar for jobs have supported the economy on both sides of the border. Today there are about 10,000 Spanish workers in Gibraltar

Christian Duo is the regional officer of Unite Gibraltar, the Rock’s largest union, which has 4,200 members and is one of the eight unions leading the CFG. He says that given a workforce that ebbs and flows from the Rock each day, Unite, with a presence in Gibraltar since the 1920s, has always prioritised the interests of frontier workers.

“Predominantly, the Spanish labour force is concentrated in the construction industry and the tourist and retail sector,” he says. “They are an important component of the labour market that helps to sustain our growing economy.”

Gibraltar’s economy is indeed robust. GDP per capita is £41,138. Recent figures reported annual growth of 10.3 per cent. Unemployment generally sits below 3 per cent, compared to the Spanish national average of 26 per cent.

Duo reminds me that historically,   the percentage of Spanish workers in Gibraltar’s labour market has always been high, and the territory has thus had a sustained impact on the Campo de Gibraltar, the hinterland region, which covers 590 square miles and is home to more than 260,000 people.

Today this impact is even more significant in the light of the Campo’s high unemployment levels. In La Línea de la Concepción, a town just across the border (population: 65,000), unemployment stands at 36 per cent.

Many Spanish families derive an income from their work in Gibraltar, Duo explains; conversely, Gibraltarians’ purchasing power spreads wealth into the surrounding Spanish municipality.  He is not alone in believing that the border restrictions are “politically designed to cause as much damage to [Gibraltar’s] economy as possible” but says that this is, in fact, “hurting mostly [Spain’s] own workforce and business community”.

The Spanish delegation in the CFG includes two of the country’s oldest and largest trade unions – the Confederación Sindical  de Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) and the  Unión General de  Trabajadores (UGT), which was founded in the late 19th century. The two unions say their stance is one of opposition to the sharp austerity measures introduced by the Socialist Prime Minister José Luis   Rodríguez  Zapatero in 2010  and further “radicalised”  by the conservative Partido Popular, which assumed power in 2011. Both believe Gibraltar plays a significant role in providing jobs and wealth to the Campo, and they share concerns about the impact of Madrid’s restrictions.