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Work & Retirement

A bitter price to pay for the French grape harvest

Pensioners who did seasonal work abroad have their allocations slashed

Verónico Martínez and Marcela Fernández in their village of Yetas. Ampliar foto
Verónico Martínez and Marcela Fernández in their village of Yetas.

Verónico Martínez, 92, is the son of the blacksmith of Yetas. He learned the trade from his father. "I learned how to shoe horses, but it all ended when tractors came along," he recalls, sitting inside the local bar. So he and his wife Marcela Fernández spent their lives working the land: sowing potatoes, reaping rosemary and lavender. For 17 years, he also traveled to France for the grape and tomato harvests with a group of village men. Marcela went with him on eight occasions. "It was so we could make enough money to eat," she says in her thin voice. "Not because I liked it."

Never did they dream that, 40 years later, those two-day train trips followed by four months of back-breaking work would come back to haunt them. On April 30, a letter was mailed from the Social Security offices in Albacete. This letter made its way up the solitary road leading to Yetas, the same road that the 15 residents of this hamlet travel down by turns to go to get medicine for everyone at the drugstore. And the letter made its way to Verónico. The office director was informing him that he was going to lose a third of his pension because of 79.66 euros a month that Marcela gets from France as a result of her occasional work there four decades ago. The couple were unsure how to interpret the administrative jargon, but the letter was not a mistake. It is one of many that are being sent out to villagers across Spain.

Verónico gets the minimum pension, 598.80 euros, and until now he was also receiving a supplement of 180.10 euros for having a dependent, Marcela, in his care. But this year, the small print in the budget includes an item that had slipped by unnoticed until a few days ago: any financial assistance by a foreign country to a dependent automatically means losing this supplement. With 79 euros and two broken hips, Marcela Fernández is now considered a self-sufficient woman. Not only that, but the couple must return the supplementary 720.40 euros that they have received since January.

Verónico is wearing a baby-blue woolen sweater and a hearing aid. His fingers are twisted from so much farm work, but despite being in his nineties, he still grows "four potatoes and four tomatoes." His conversation is peppered with amusing anecdotes from back when shepherds only ate beans and wheat. When he went up to France he typically worked in the area of Montagnol, but once he went down to see the ocean. "And one year I went to the fair at Montpellier and there I saw a dog wearing pants: it was fantastic."

Inside a small leather wallet, Verónico keeps the official replies to the letters he wrote to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and to "señora Dolores" de Cospedal (secretary of the ruling Popular Party) to explain that his wife and himself can barely get by on his new pension, and that the PP had promised his pension would go up by one percent.

"In Toledo they tell me to go complain in Albacete; in Albacete, they say it's Madrid's business... They all do whatever they want, and I'm left the same way I was."

Why are they taking money from those who spent their lives busting their backs?"

Verónico wants to make it clear that he means no offense to anyone with his protesting. "This is not about whether we are causing offense," jumps in Marcela. "Who can get by on 500 euros? And we have to pay a cleaning lady because I can't do it myself."

Her husband nods, yet tries to remain optimistic: "If you want, later I'll tell you the story about the balloon; it's an incredible thing that happened to me as a child. A journalist from Albacete came and told me he would send me the article." Then he gets indignant too: "Why are they taking money away from those of us who spent our lives busting our backs?"

"Fairness" is the answer offered by the Labor Ministry to the old man's question. The legislative changes mean that it does not matter whether the foreign check is for one euro or for 1,000. "Since 2011, if a person was receiving a pension in Spain, they were not considered a dependent," says a ministry spokesman. "It makes no sense not to apply that to people receiving aid from another country."

But the problem lies in the different kinds of citizen who are affected by these changes; in this case, field workers who participated sporadically in harvesting campaigns abroad. The ministry spokesman said nobody has calculated how much savings the legal change will bring in, nor how many people are affected by it. "Very few," ventures the spokesman.

But those are not the estimates handled by Esperanza Tarancón, a lawyer with the Albacete branch of the CCOO labor union. Tarancón already knows of 40 similar cases, always concerning shepherds and field workers. "These are people working under the Social Security's special agrarian heading, people with very low income. We have seen cases where entire pensions were canceled because the wife was getting 20 euros from France," Tarancón explains.

Pedro Antonio Ruiz, the Socialist Party senator for Albacete, says that there are around 20,000 people in these circumstances among the 286,339 retirees getting the minimum pension in Spain. Ruiz became aware of the problem after reading letters sent in to him by pensioners in his province. "In Villarrobledo, my home village, there are 20 people affected by this," says Ruiz, who put a question to Labor Minister Fátima Báñez on this issue in the Senate (the minister insisted there is nothing new that was not already essentially there in the previous legislation passed by the Socialist administration in 2011, to the effect that pensions would take into account whether dependents were receiving some kind of financial assistance in Spain).

"The person who did this does not understand the scope of the problem," says the senator, sitting at his desk. "It's not about fairness, but about saving a few million without thinking about the consequences for the people affected."

The Labor Ministry spokesman admits that saving is part of the equation, and says that Verónico's case is "an unwanted effect" of the law. He also adds that it is surprising that this sort of thing seems to be happening only in the province of Albacete. But Tarancón and Ruiz deny that their province is at the epicenter of the problem, and say they suspect there are a lot more seasonal field workers affected in Castilla-La Mancha, Andalusia and Extremadura.

One couple lost out because the wife worked at a Swiss hotel in the 1970s

Senator Ruiz pulls out one of the many letters sitting on his desk: it is from a sailor in A Coruña whose wife worked in France. Another letter is signed by 68-year-old José González Moyano, of Villavaliente, Albacete. His son Mateo explained over the phone that his father had worked for 35 years as a self-employed laborer at a farming company, "never collecting a pension or paid leave," and is now making 598.80 euros a month instead of 778 because his wife made the grievous mistake of working at a Swiss hotel for three seasons in the 1970s.

"In this village of 250 people, there are four such cases, some because of a 20-euro check; but these are elderly people who don't know how to claim what's theirs," he says.

One of the solutions offered by the government to couples in this situation is for the dependent to give up his or her right to the foreign pension; yet this is usually an inalienable right that nobody can give up by choice. José González's wife, for instance, was told by Swiss authorities that she could not stop her 64-euro check.

Verónico stands outside the door of his house, which is full of roses and geraniums. Before saying goodbye, he delivers on his promise of telling the story of the balloon.

"I was eight years old. You could see this thing coming closer and closer. It was amazing: it was flying among the farmers, with two ropes hanging down. It fell among the trees in Majar de Guillén. Inside it was a captain from Guadalajara, Benito Mala, who flew up [to an altitude of] 11,000 meters and suffocated. The image stayed with me for life, seeing him all full of blood like that. It's the sort of thing that used to happen in the past." The newspaper article that the journalist promised never made it to Yetas.