Latin American workers return home

Marketplace Staff Jan 31, 2011

Latin American workers return home

Marketplace Staff Jan 31, 2011


Bob Moon: The Egyptian crisis reminds us just how closely interconnected our global economy is. We also saw proof of that in the way the economic downturn hit pretty much everyone — including undocumented workers. As informal jobs in the U.S. and Europe dried up, many Latin American workers find themselves with little choice but to return to their home countries.

Annie Murphy has the story from Bolivia.

Annie Murphy: The La Paz airport is a handful of gates and a single restaurant. The cramped arrivals area is full of tourists, business travelers, and increasingly, retornados: Returned migrant workers.

Many have been in the U.S. or Europe for years, working to send money back to this remote country in the Andes. Unemployment here is about 10 percent — and most jobs don’t even pay enough to meet basic monthly expenses like food, electricity, and water. The government estimates that up to a fifth of Bolivians live outside the country — mainly in the U.S., Argentina and Spain.

But with the global economic crisis, many are returning home. Arturo Calle is one of them. He just returned from five years in Spain working as a gardener, farm laborer and street vendor.

Arturo Calle: Spain has deflated like a balloon. For migrants in general, employment has disappeared. A huge number of Latinos have been laid off. This is why people are going back to their home countries.

Sociologist Bruno Rojas studies labor and migration.

Bruno Rojas speaking in Spanish

Rojas says each day at least 60 Bolivians return just from Spain alone. And, according to Rojas, they’re coming back to a place where their options aren’t much better than when they left.

Arturo Calle.

Calle: It really makes you think, to go backwards. Nothing has changed here in Bolivia. You get here and you think, “What happened? How did I get here?”

There’s also some shame associated with returning from abroad. Calle is now trying to start a business importing motorcycles from China. He says the venture’s going well, and that he’s busy. But his tiny office is barren and dead quiet — just him, a desk and a stack of empty folders. He’s already thinking about going abroad again.

Calle: Immigration is part of human nature. You go to the other side of the world, get to know it and try to better your situation. Returning immigrants are going to come home, and then they’re going to take another path, find another destination.

Sociologist Bruno Rojas says one popular destination seems to be losing its appeal, the U.S.

Rojas speaking in Spanish

With the economic crisis in the U.S., he says, Latin American immigrants have been among the first to lose their jobs. They also face increasingly strict American immigration laws. And all that, says Rojas, means the U.S. is losing its reputation as the land of opportunity.

Experts say migrant workers, particularly those from South America, are now turning to Brazil, which has a booming economy, and friendlier immigration policies.

In La Paz, Bolivia, I’m Annie Murphy for Marketplace.

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