The weight that foreign workers have gained in the labor force over the last decades has led them from being a practically irrelevant group in labor terms to becoming a key player in the market, and everything indicates that it will continue to grow over the next few years.

If back in 1976, in what can be defined as the beginning of the Transition, these foreign workers barely represented 1.3% of the employed and 2.6% of the population, today, foreigners have multiplied their presence in the labor market to represent 20% of jobs at the end of the first quarter of this year, according to data from the Active Population Survey (EPA).

However, despite the fact that they suffer from a much higher unemployment rate (19.90%) than that of the Spanish (12.15%), they monopolize the creation of new employment. In the last 12 months (from the first quarter of 2022 to 2023), a period in which the economy has recovered the post-pandemic “old normality”, 368,100 jobs have been created, 77%, or 284,400, of jobs corresponding to foreigners.

According to the CEU Demographic Observatory, “Immigration in the Spanish labor market”, directed by Joaquín Leguina and coordinated by Alejandro Macarrón, this increase in the number of employed foreigners is not something new, since according to data from recent years they confirm that most of the net new employment is occupied by foreigners.

This work highlights that the old idea that foreign workers come to fill positions that nationals do not want, either because of their physical hardness or because of their lesser training, is not completely true. Although it is true that there are sectors in which foreign workers continue to have a relatively higher weight, the coordinator of this work considers that “what is taking place is an overlap between national and foreign workers in very specific sectors”, such as certain services, construction or agriculture.

new perception

This perception has also been changing in recent years when a set of new professions have emerged, the majority of which have been occupied by foreign workers, such as the new assistance services for the elderly in the face of ageing, shop assistants or security guards.

For Raúl Olmos, attached to CC OO’s Confederal Secretariat for Trade Union Action and Employment, despite recognizing the numbers, he considers that “the figure can be somewhat misleading and may correspond to an outcrop of submerged employment after the entry into force of the labor reform, whose effects are more evident in women, especially in sectors such as tourism and hospitality, information services (call centers) and the agricultural sector where foreign workers represent 40% of the total”.

He shares that there is also a higher qualification among foreign workers and this is translating into greater imports in the health sector, whether they are from the nursing or medical field, or from creators of computer programs.

For Javier Blasco, director of The Adecco Group Institute, it can be seen how the average activity rate for foreigners is set at 71% compared to 57% for Spaniards, and he recognizes that something is changing in foreign employment, since it is raising their qualifications, “although bringing in talent is not achieved overnight”.

He explains to this newspaper that teleworking “has brought foreign talent and we have an example in Malaga”, although he acknowledges that “this talent is not sustained only by the climate and gastronomy, but must be reinforced with fiscal and labor measures, since otherwise they may choose to go to Portugal.

The weight of foreign workers occupies more than a quarter of the positions in a good number of communities, with the Balearic Islands having the greatest weight with 31.6%, which is largely due to the weight of these workers in the service sector, mainly tourism. A similar case is that of the Canary Islands, where this labor force represents 28.2%, while in Madrid, this percentage moderates slightly to 26.5%, while in Catalonia it reaches 24.6%.


The data from the EPA that this work by the CEU highlights highlights that foreign women work “in their overwhelming majority” in services, while men much more in agriculture and construction than Spaniards, and much less in the industrial sector. In the whole of 2022, immigrants held 16.5% of all jobs, 26.4% in the agricultural sector, 11.6% in industry, 24.8% in construction and 16.7% in services.

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