MADRID – Charo Garcia scrubs toilets for a living and used to do it with a smile. She sweeps, mops and does other dirty work at a public high school, proud to create a better atmosphere for rowdy teens to learn.
"I clean as if they were my own," said Garcia, who has a 15-year-old son. There's one problem: Garcia has not been paid for four months.
Garcia's plight is shared across Spain: legions of blue-collar workers, from gardeners to bricklayers, are working for months without pay as employers struggle to stay afloat in an economy shaking off recession, saddled with colossal debts, and with slim prospects for any major improvement soon.
People like Garcia are caught in a trap: If they quit rather than wait to be laid off, they lose entitlement to unemployment benefits. And if they do bail out, there's a monster awaiting them — a 21 percent jobless rate.
"There are a lot of people getting up in the morning and going to work and not getting paid," said Gayle Allard, a labor market expert at IE Business School in Madrid.
It's a phenomenon seen in eastern Europe as well, with workers in countries like Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia waiting months, in some cases years, for a paycheck from cash-strapped employers. But Spain is one of Europe's richest countries, one with recent memories of a giddy economic boom — so the sight of workers toiling without pay will come as a deeper shock.
Experts say there's no way to tell how many Spaniards are in such straits. But they say the number is significant and could rise after local elections this month, when debt-ravaged local governments are expected to reveal even bigger budget woes. Thousands of small and midsize companies that employ people like Garcia rely on these governments for contracting work.
Garcia, 51, clings to her job and lives in limbo as she waits for pay day, which her employer insists will come. But he has also filed for protection from creditors, making the future murkier for the company's 170 cleaners. Garcia says her fate is worse than being jobless.
When she does get paid, Garcia takes home euro475 ($680) a month for her half-day shift. Her company is contracted by the Madrid regional government to clean 23 schools in and around the capital. Her husband Manuel is a security guard. He earns euro1,000 ($1,400) a month.
"Psychologically, it is devastating," she said. "If you are unemployed, at least you know what you are up against and you do whatever you think you have to do to get by."
She added: "I don't know if people understand what it is like to work without getting paid, how demoralizing it is." Garcia and some of her colleagues finally broke down and went on strike early this month, after going since Christmas without a paycheck.
Garcia sleeps in fits and dreams about her ordeal. She finds endless ways to cut corners — like braving winter without heating, bundling up by day and sleeping under mounds of blankets at night. Garcia does fewer laundry loads and changed her family's diet: steaks and fresh fish are history, most meals are lentils or beans.
With all this fretting Garcia has lost 3 kilos (7 pounds) since January. "My husband says I am vanishing," says Garcia, a petite woman with bags under her eyes and a tired voice. She tugs at the loose waistband of her jeans to show how skinny she's getting.
Garcia almost cries when she speaks of the sacrifices their son, also named Manuel, has to make: no more allowance, no more cell phone, not a cent for new sneakers, movies with friends, or even a soft drink. But he doesn't complain.
"He tells me to be tough and not to worry," Garcia said. "He says I should not worry about him, that he is not going to ask me for anything. And he gives me kisses and hugs me."
Jose Juan Villagran, a gardener who calls himself a 'tree doctor,' staged a weeklong sit-in last month outside town hall in Aranjuez south of Madrid to press for payment of euro116,000 ($165,000) he said he was owed for pruning and other services from his company, which employs five men other than himself.
Town hall did not dispute the figure but said it simply lacked the money to pay, said Villagran, whose crew recently went two months without a pay check. He had to lay off one worker. Aranjuez's town hall would not make anyone available for comment.
"We have other clients," he said. "The thing is this, in a small company, euro116,000 is a lot of money, so much so that I had to open a credit line with the bank to cover that debt."
If the bank had said no, he added, he would have been doomed.
"That's how easy it is to bring down a company," said the 41-year-old Villagran, who has now received some of what he's owed — euro22,000 ($31,000) — and a promise of a bit more. But he says it'll take years to get the rest.
The Platform Against Late Payment, a Barcelona-based pressure group, estimates at least a half million businesses have closed in Spain during the crisis because they could not survive payment delays. It estimates town halls alone have about euro35 billion ($50 billion) in unpaid bills.
Pedro Arahuetes, who represents the Spanish Federation of Municipalities and Provinces, said he cannot confirm that figure but the group is aware of people trying to live on virtually nothing because of deadbeat city councils.
"Of course we talk about it. We accept and study and analyze these situations," he said. But Arahuetes insisted late payment by town halls is nothing new. What is different in these hard times, he said, is that banks are stingy about granting credit lines to help companies weather the storm.
Another working class hanger-on is Oscar Garcia. He sorts eggs at a poultry farm that is home to 350,000 scrawny hens. The company is struggling so badly it recently slaughtered 250,000 birds because it could not afford to feed them. Garcia, 30, and his colleagues have not been paid for three months.
Garcia is keeping afloat because he is not married and has no children. But he does have a mortgage and bills that eat up half his euro900 ($1,300) a month salary even when he's getting paid; he now relies on his parents to get by. He's dating a woman, but their dates consist of taking walks or staying home and watching TV.
"The hens are better off then we are," Garcia said.
At the farm, co-workers occasionally blow up at each other, all out of the frustration of working without pay.
"If someone loses it, we tell him 'calm down, relax. We're all in the same boat,'" Garcia said.