Migrant workers in Gibraltar
Jennifer Ballantine Perera
Historian, Gibraltar Garrison Library, Institute for Gibraltar and Mediterranean Studies, University of Gibraltar, Gibraltar
« The real difficulty is not to decide who you ought to admit but who to exclude » Frederick Solly Flood, 1866
As a British Overseas Territory on the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, and as a natural intercontinental stepping stone, Gibraltar has become home to migrants in search of commercial opportunities, in particular post-1713, at which point Gibraltar is legally transferred to Great Britain under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht. Incentivised by the demand for skilled labour and merchants to purvey the military garrison, these enterprising migrants from North Africa and Europe contributed to the transformation of Gibraltar into a vibrant commercial hive. Hybridity and multiculturalism have ever since informed the community of Gibraltarians that grew from these migrations to the Rock.
Still, as a promontory just over three miles square with limited physical space to house newcomers, on-going migrations have always raised serious concerns. In the 19th century, for example, overcrowding due to lack of space for housing was isolated as a primary agent for the spread of diseases, which in turn became a discourse to justify measures to curb migrations (TNA /CO91/292). These perceived threats, together with the realities of a place like Gibraltar, with no tangible space for population growth, became the driving force for the implementation of legislation designed to both curb a civilian population and restrict migrants from taking up residency. Legislation such as the Aliens Order in Council 1873, was the first of subsequent laws designed to regulate the entry of migrants and to prevent their rights of residency once in Gibraltar (GGA/ Aliens Order in Council 1873). Although a 19th century legislative context, these laws set a point of departure for the subject of this essay, which will discuss what in essence is a 20th century phenomena of migrations to Gibraltar as it refers to the arrival of a Moroccan workforce in 1969. Dependency on an imported migrant workforce is great in Gibraltar, yet the physical space available to absorb the settlement of migrants remains very limited. The question therefore is to understand how this balancing act is achieved and whether this is more about only permitting entry to those that can be of service to the economy rather than restricting entry to all.
Prior to Spain’s closure of her border with Gibraltar in 1969, Gibraltar had heavily depended on a Spanish trans-border workforce of around five thousand from the neighbouring town of La Línea. An arrangement that worked well as these would return to Spain at the end of every working day thus eliminating the need to provide housing or any other associated residency rights. The impact on Gibraltar of their withdrawal in July 1969 with the closure of the border marked a defining moment in history. Having been cut off from mainland Europe though her only land border, Gibraltar looked towards Morocco for food supplies and the labour necessary to avert the total collapse of the economy. The first Moroccan workers arrived soon after under an agreement stipulating that their residency was entirely dependent on a work permit held by their employer, with workers being issued with employment certificates. In the event of their permits being revoked, that is, should they lose their job, they would have to surrender their certificate and civilian registration card (Civilians Registration Principal Act. No. 1950-18), on the working day following termination of employment (Employment Act 1932-16). As such, these workers were almost entirely dependent on their employer’s good will. Any protest about wages and conditions could lead to repercussions as employers held the power to dismiss them. Under the Act they would be extradited without recourse to challenge their dismissal through a tribunal.
As a point of reference, Moroccans were not the only non-EU workers subject to these conditions. In the case of the Indian community of Gibraltar, traders were permitted to recruit labour from other non-EU countries when unable to find locals with the required skills. Workers would subsequently be brought from India on a bond, which was similar to a work permit, rendering these individuals entirely dependent on their employer’s will. As with Moroccan workers, the bond could be revoked and extradition imposed, irrespective of the length of their contract or stay Gibraltar. Choices for both sets of workers were limited; they could either remain under indentured conditions, sending back home what money they earned, or challenge the terms of their bond and bear the consequences. It is clear that the pressure felt by the authorities to manage what little available space remained for housing and development, especially during the closed border years, 1969-1982/85, created the ideal conditions for curbing the rights of migrant workers.
Still, and whilst conditions were not ideal any non EU worker, the opening of the frontier, firstly for pedestrians only in 1982, and its full opening in 1985, served to bring renewed focus on the plight of these migrant workers, who now feared that they would lose their work permits and be replaced by the Spanish who has left in 1969. With the help of the Gibraltar trade union, the TGWU, they set up the Moroccan Workers Association, and set about demanding improved conditions. In February 1985, the Gibraltar Chronicle published an article on the Moroccan Workers Association following a demand by Spanish police that Moroccans crossing the border could only do so with a surety of seventy-five thousand pesetas. No other nationals were being asked to do the same. Mohamed Sarsri, the head of the association maintained that these conditions were aimed at encouraging Moroccans to leave, thus opening up employment for Spaniards in Gibraltar. Sarsri went on to say that:
We came over after the Spanish labour had been withdrawn at a time when we had a bargaining position. We could have insisted on all sorts of privileges and protection and we could have got it. However we did not use that strength. […] It is a small place and so we do not ask the impossible. Housing is a problem and unemployment a new phenomena […] but at least we should feel sure of having employment after investing years of work here.
Many had since brought their wives to Gibraltar where they had joined the workforce as holders of work permits. Their children could not however live with them nor benefit from the education system; neither were they entitled to subsidised social housing, having instead to rent from private landlords who would charge exorbitant rates. Access to unemployment pay was limited as were sickness benefits, this despite paying tax and social insurance contributions. Sarsri had in fact been in Gibraltar for over eighteen years and was, along with many other Moroccans, denied residency rights. Moroccan women working in Gibraltar were also at the time subject to a clause in the immigration laws (Immigration, Asylum and Refugee Act: Principal Act 1962-12), a throwback to the Aliens Order in Council of 1885, which made it illegal for them to give birth to their children in Gibraltar. Clearly a premise to circumvent the tenet of Jus Soli, women had to register their pregnancy with the Immigration Office who would ensure that expectant mothers leave Gibraltar by their second trimester, only being permitted back once the child was born and left behind in Morocco. By 1985, 1,704 Moroccan migrant workers remained out of the 5,000 that came originally, importantly though, these issues had by this stage become part of a moral and ethical debate, one that was taken up by the Gibraltar Housewives Association, who successfully lobbied to have the law prohibiting Moroccan women to give birth in Gibraltar revoked later that same year. This was a major step in recognition of the inequalities Moroccans had been subjected to. The fact that Moroccan women can now give birth in Gibraltar has led to a new generation of Moroccan Gibraltarians with access to education and work. This is a fully integrated generation but questions remain as to the status of the initial migrant workers who first came to Gibraltar over forty years ago.
In 2009 Giles Tremlett wrote an article for The Guardian newspaper on this very issue. Referring to figures provided by the TGWU, he suggested that around a third of the Moroccans working in Gibraltar had successfully applied to become Gibraltarians, therefore holders of a British Overseas Territories Passport, but the system was slow and not all of the workers fulfilled the conditions as Moroccans without families or living in the workers hostel, did not have the permanent status deemed necessary. Interestedly, one of the individuals Tremlett spoke to was Mohamed Sarsri, who by this stage been in Gibraltar for over forty years. ‘The aim’, suggested Sarsri ‘should be naturalisation and permanent residence, as if we were in the UK’.
But Gibraltar is not in the UK, and this fact allows Gibraltar to maintain its status as a Financial Services Centre and a major hub attracting workers and investments from around the world. But this in itself raises all sorts of questions as to who is given access to residency. In 1992 Gibraltar introduced legislation to encourage a new type of economic migrant. In 1999 rules were set in place for high net worth individuals, known as Category 2, with a minimum investment of two million pounds, to become residents by virtue of their financial status. Conditions must clearly be met, but the fact that Gibraltar actively seeks out Category 2 residents demonstrates an uneven playing field in the question of residency rights for migrants. The key lies therefore in deciding who to exclude and not who ought to be admitted.
Moroccans in Gibraltar are increasingly gaining Gibraltarian status and they now form an integral part of the community, but moral and ethical issue remain. Legislation does not take into account that we are dealing with human beings who, after having worked and lived in Gibraltar for, in some cases, over forty years, have come to consider themselves as Gibraltarians. The law is blind in these instances as it does not consider questions of subjectivity as is the case of the Moroccan community, who now feel more at home in Gibraltar than in Morocco, where links to familial points of reference may be distant, and to return to Morocco would be to do so as migrants.
- TNA/ CO91/292, F. Solly Flood to B. Carver, Gibraltar, 23 October 1866.
- GGA/ Orders in Council/ Aliens Order in Council 1873.
- Laws of Gibraltar / Civilians Registration Principal Act. No. 1950-18; Employment Act 1932-16; Immigration, Asylum and Refugee Act: Principal Act 1962-12; Qualifying (Category 2) Individuals Rules 1999, Consolidated under the Income Tax Act 2010. Available here.
- Moroccans Point to Frontier Discrimination. Gibraltar Chronicle. 8 February 1985.
- Tremlett, G. (28 march 2009). Rock and a hard Place. The Guardian. Available here.