Twenty-three-year-old João Moreira considered himself lucky to get a job as a school teacher after obtaining his master's degree in education in Porto, Portugal's second-largest city.
But he was appalled when he discovered that he would earn less than the minimum wage. At €330 a month ($440) he is forced to live at home with his mother in his second year of teaching high-school students.
On March 12, Moreira and other recent university graduates used Facebook to organize street demonstrations to protest the dismal economic conditions facing his generation. The protests attracted between 300,000-400,000 demonstrators in Portugal's 10 major cities, surprising even the organizers themselves.
The organizers, all in their 20s, called themselves geração à rasca — loosely translated as the “desperate generation” or “generation in a jam.” They say they were inspired by the Portuguese band Deolinda's popular song “What a Fool I Am,” whose lyrics, “I'm from the unpaid generation,” spoke to their precarious work situation.
“There are no jobs for young people in Portugal, and when you have a job, you have a job like mine — a low-paid job,” says Moreira. “We can't see a future for ourselves; we have no prospects.” Two of his fellow organizers were headed to wealthier countries — Germany and Denmark — to work.
Besides unemployment, demonstrators complained about the lack of job security. The number of so-called “green receipts” jobs — temporary consultant jobs without benefits — has swelled, and the protesters say many are trapped in these jobs for years. Youths also complain of another form of exploitation in their eyes: unpaid or low-paid internships.
“We have 35-year-olds who graduated 10 or 15 years ago who are still in internships because there's no other way of getting into the job market,” says Paula Gil, 26, a petite, serious-eyed organizer of the Lisbon protests, who has a master's degree in international relations and is working in a year-long paid internship with a nongovernmental, international development organization.
“It is slavery,” when you're working for free, says Gil. In a paid internship like hers, she says, payroll taxes take 50 percent of her pay even though “you don't get access to unemployment insurance or sick leave, you can be fired at any time and you don't get social security benefits.”
Protesters in downtown Lisbon are just some of the 300,000-400,000 demonstrators who took to the streets of 10 major cities in Portugal on March 12, 2011, to protest the lack of job opportunities for young people. The turnout surprised even the organizers, who used Facebook to advertise the protests. (AFP/Getty Images/Francisco Leong)
Such dead-end jobs delay young people's decisions, experts note. “They can't marry because banks won't give them a mortgage,” further contributing to Portugal's low fertility rate, observes Ana Catarina Santos, a political journalist for TSF, a radio news station in Lisbon.
But not all university graduates foresee such a grim future. Several graduate students in economics at Nova University School of Business and Economics in Lisbon — Portugal's most selective business school — are optimistic about finding jobs, but expect they probably will have to go abroad to find their “dream job.” None had attended the recent demonstrations.
Employers are simply trying to get around Portugal's rigid labor and benefit rules that make it expensive to hire and difficult to fire employees, these students say, echoing the view of the European Union, which is expected to demand that Portugal move towards a more flexible labor market. Those labor laws need to change, says Nova student Rafael Barbosa, 21. “When you march against symptoms, nothing will get done,” he says.
“It is very difficult for a boss to fire a worker in Portugal because they're protected by law by unions and lawyers,” explains Santos, coauthor of the 2010 book, Dangerous Ideas to Save Portugal. Under existing law, if an employer fires a worker the boss must pay close to twice the employee's salary for every year worked, Santos notes. If the employer tries to challenge the requirement in court, it could take up to 10 years to get through the appeal process.
Indeed, there's “a cultural expectation” among the Portuguese that they'll have a job for life, especially in the bloated government sector, Santos says. It's partly a legacy of the 1974 revolution against the 42-year dictatorship of António de Oliviera Salazar and of the socialist rhetoric in liberated Portugal's constitution, which strongly guarantees workers' rights. About 13 percent of Portugal's workforce is employed in government jobs, from which it is almost impossible to be fired, according to Santos.
But Portugal's recently requested bailout from the European Union will likely require reform of the country's rigid labor rules — similar to recent labor reforms in Spain — and reductions in worker benefits.
Portugal also has suffered from a decade of poor economic growth, largely the result of its failure to improve the productivity of industries like textiles, which have become increasingly uncompetitive in the face of cheap Chinese exports.
Protest leaders have steered clear of offering political solutions to these economic realities. Their primary purpose, they say, was to start a discussion at the grass roots. They presented parliament with hundreds of survey sheets filled out by protesters, who were asked to suggest solutions. It's unclear what kind of reception their proposals, which Santos expects to be “a bit utopian,” will receive from the new government after the June 5 elections. The new government will have to devise a strict austerity package to meet EU bailout conditions.
Still, the March demonstrations, notable for their lack of violence, touched a chord among other generations, too. “You could see a 40-year-old mother worried that her sons were unemployed, and you could see pensioners who earn only €300 a month,” reports Santos. “It was diverse — each group protesting a different thing, a bit messy but very genuine. It showed Portuguese society has a lot of problems.”
— Sarah Glazer