Ecuadorians Return Home, Unemployment Swells

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In Ecuador, unemployment is a growing problem. But an even greater crisis may be looming: reverse migration. The overseas jobs that Ecuadorian migrants came to depend on are now rapidly drying up and many are coming home to few options.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

The United States certainly isn't the only nation around the world that suffers from high unemployment. As the global slowdown continues, migrants from Ecuador who've been unable to find work in other countries are beginning to return home. And when they do, many face a harsh reality.

From the southern city of Cuenca, Sean Bowditch reports.

(Soundbite of automobiles)

SEAN BOWDITCH: It's late morning and San Francisco Plaza is bustling. Despite a drenching rain, food vendors are doing brisk business. Across the street, shoppers sift through assorted goods piled high in open-air stalls. But the plaza is also a destination for another crowd.

(Soundbite of conversations)

BOWDITCH: Huddled beneath the overhang of a nearby storefront are dozens of Ecuadorian men, all out of work. As the global economic crisis deepens, unemployment in Cuenca is on the rise. For the jobless, San Francisco Plaza has become an important gathering point. Every morning, employers cruise by looking for workers to do just about anything: construction, cleaning, even move furniture. But as the economy continues to purge jobs, competition has grown fierce.

Vicente Mejia(ph) is a 33-year-old carpenter. As he talks, he draws the hood of his sweatshirt tightly around his face.

Mr. VICENTE MEJIA (Unemployed Carpenter): (Through translator) Right now I'm worried because I don't have work. I haven't worked for a month. I have to support my family.

BOWDITCH: Fueling the competition for jobs are Peruvian and Columbian migrants. In the last decade, tens of thousands of Ecuadorians have departed for the U.S. and Europe, increasing local demand for low wage workers. For migrants from Peru and Columbia, this has created a prime opportunity to secure employment and earn U.S. dollars, Ecuador's official currency.

Nowadays, these migrants also hang around the plaza. They tend to scoop up the majority of what little work there is, much to the chagrin of Giovanni Munoz. He installs carpeting but hasn't had consistent employment in months.

Mr. GIOVANNI MUNOZ (Unemployed Carpet Installer): (Through translator) People here prefer to hire them over us because they charge less. Those of us who live here, we earn in dollars and spend in dollars. On the other hand, they take the dollars to their own countries and spend them there.

BOWDITCH: The situation has gotten tense. The police were recently called in after a scuffle broke out between the two groups.

The contracting global economy has caused another unsettling trend. As low wage work in the U.S. and Europe dries up, many Ecuadorian migrants are returning home. While there's no way of knowing exactly how many, officials with the National Secretary of the Migrant say since December they've fielded thousands of inquiries from migrants who want to come back.

For those who do return, the situation in Ecuador is not necessarily welcoming.

(Soundbite of barking dog)

BOWDITCH: In the small town of Banos, just west of Cuenca, 43-year-old Salvador Veros(ph) and his wife Jacqueline live at the end of a quiet dirt road. Ten years ago, Salvador left to find work in the U.S. After two failed attempts to enter the country, he eventually settled in Massachusetts and got a job with a cleaning service. But last fall things began to unravel.

Mr. SALVADOR VEROS: (Through translator) Finding work got harder and harder. There are fewer opportunities and employers started checking papers.

BOWDITCH: By November, with little money and facing unemployment, he returned to Ecuador. The transition was tough. He had to get to know a family he'd not seen in a decade and jobs were scarce.

Mr. VEROS: (Through translator) There's not a lot of work at companies here. They don't hire people who are 43 years old anymore.

BOWDITCH: The number of returning migrants will continue to rise, says Carmen Alvarado. She works as a legal adviser at the House of the Migrant, a municipal agency that assists families of migrants. It's a reality, she says, the community is not prepared for.

Ms. CARMEN ALVARADO (House of the Migrant): (Through translator) Every day family members of migrants abroad who want to return come to my office.

BOWDITCH: Her advice to them is blunt.

Ms. ALVARADO: (Through translator) I give them the big picture. The situation in our country still hasn't changed. We still don't have jobs, and unemployment is very high. Salaries are still very low. What they earn there in a week, they earn here in a month. that's if they get a job. It's very complicated.

BOWDITCH: Led by President Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian government has implemented a handful of policies aimed at easing the financial stress felt by returning migrants. But some question whether they're doing enough.

Back in San Francisco Plaza, the rain has slowed. Some of the unemployed Ecuadorians have given up and left. Among those who remain, the conversation turns to the government.

Mr. OSWALDO FERNANDEZ (Unemployed Construction Worker): (Spanish spoken)

BOWDITCH: That's construction worker Oswaldo Fernandez. He says no president has ever done anything.

Mr. FERNANDEZ: (Through translator) All they do is exploit. They do something for themselves and then they're gone. We feel very exploited, and now we're desperate. We can no longer provide for Columbia and Peru, and the United States is closing its door to us.

BOWDITCH: Many of the others nod in agreement, their frustration obvious. With that they return to waiting, hoping their next job isn't too far away.

For NPR News, I'm Sean Bowditch in Cuenca, Ecuador.

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