The Covid crisis came scything through Alejandro’s* life with a speed, ferocity and vindictive thoroughness that stuns him to this day. Almost overnight, the widowed craftsman’s business supplying leather pieces to shops, markets and the military folded, his meagre savings gave out, his father died from coronavirus, the electricity was cut off and he found himself relying on food banks to feed himself and his teenage daughter.
“Things were hard before the pandemic,” he says. “But if you’d told me one day that everything that’s happened to me would happen to me, I’d never have believed you.
“I started skipping meals so that I could feed my daughter properly. I lost 12 kilos through nerves, not eating and not sleeping. I used to lie and tell her I wasn’t hungry because I’d been picking at stuff all day.”
By spring last year, Alejandro was begging outside a Madrid supermarket just to survive. He would probably still be there now if it had not been for a family he had got to know at the supermarket – and an unusually altruistic harnessing of social media.
The family’s daughter told him about Un Mismo Equipo (One Team), an Instagram account and website that allows unemployed and often homeless people to advertise their skills to potential employers. A company that makes luxury motorbike seats came across Alejandro’s profile and offered him a job at their factory in northern Spain.
The initiative began in June when a friend of the film-maker Gonzalo Perales sent him a photo of a man on a street in central Madrid. The man, an electrician by training, had made a cardboard sign to appeal for work.
Perales, who “went a bit viral” on social media four years ago when he made a video about being diagnosed with leukaemia, posted the picture on his Instagram account.
Within an hour, the man had been offered a job. The following day, Perales met a man on the streets of Madrid who was looking for work as a waiter. He uploaded his story and, within 48 hours, 15 job interviews had rolled in.
Perales soon realised that many of those who had lost their jobs because of the pandemic were people in their 40s and 50s who had worked for decades as waiters, tradespeople or craftworkers. When Covid stuck, they suddenly found themselves cut off from the employment market because they did not know how to look for jobs online.
“Today, you need a computer and computer skills to get a job because that’s where 95% of jobs are advertised,” says Perales. “In the beginning, I used to go out on to the streets of Madrid on my scooter and in my spare time looking for people who’d not been on the streets for too long. I talked to them and asked if they were looking for work. I interviewed them and then tried to write it up nicely to put online.”
He has now has recruited two colleagues – Pablo García and Miguel Jiménez – to help develop the project, and is now spending 10 hours a day fielding inquiries as word of Un Mismo Equipo spreads and social media users tell people on the streets about it.
The idea is simple: people make contact via Instagram or the website and are sent a questionnaire to fill in. After that, Perales chats to them and publishes their profiles so that potential employers can take a look.
“It’s like a more human kind of LinkedIn,” he says. “We tell people’s stories in a nice way so that others can empathise with them. A lot of the people we work with are in their 50s and have been working in their trades for 30 years so they have a lot of experience. That can really help companies.”
Thanks to their mobile phones and free wifi in cafes and other public places, dozens of people a day are now getting in touch to look for work, and the Instagram page has more than 30,000 followers.
As demand for Un Mismo Equipo grows, Perales and his colleagues are hoping to transform the project into a social start-up.
“We’re not looking to become another Save the Children or Unicef,” he says. “But if we got enough people involved and enough partnerships and marketing, we could help 1,000 people a year instead of 100.” In the last months the project has helped get 13 people jobs across Spain.
Alejandro, who has just finished his first week of work in 18 months, is delighted to be working again and has even begun to allow himself the luxury of making plans. He is saving up so that his daughter can stop living with relatives in Madrid and come to join him up north.
“In a few months, I’ll rent a little place for us here,” he says. “I can eat and I can live with a bit of dignity now.”
*Alejandro is not his real name