“Having a job improves a person’s financial situation, but without housing or health support, there is no way out of poverty”

Interview with Xavier Puig, co-CEO of the Formació i Treball Foundation

18/03/2024 - 12:55 h - Inclusion Ajuntament de Barcelona

We sat down with Xavier Puig, co-CEO of the Formació i Treball Foundation, to talk about its first three decades, the changes that have taken place in society and the challenges that lie ahead in the field of social and labour integration.

What are the goals of the Formació i Treball Foundation?

Our aim is to improve the employability of people in vulnerable situations and to support them towards open market employment so that they can make it in the world of work. We also provide social assistance to vulnerable families, covering basic necessities such as clothing, food and household furniture.

We’re mainly active in the province of Barcelona and part of Tarragona. Our model focuses on carrying out economically sustainable activities with an environmental and circular economy impact, and above all on creating jobs.

How do you achieve these goals? What’s your approach?

In the beginning, more than 30 years ago, we started with vocational training, but have gradually moved into work opportunities. We’re currently involved in more than 20 economic activities and are the largest integration employer in Catalonia and the rest of Spain in terms of the number of jobs we provide, serving around 1,000 people every year.

We work in fields that help us, above all, to integrate people coming from social services. We improve their employability in a real working environment, in line with market demand, and once they have achieved the objective set out in their personalised employment plan, we terminate their contract and find them a regular job.

In terms of social assistance, we have always striven to ensure that it is provided in a dignified way. We’ve always done our best to make this assistance dignified: for 24 years we’ve been issuing cheques to be used in our shop, where people can choose what they want according to their needs and preferences. A few years ago we introduced a QR code system where the social worker sends the voucher to the user’s mobile phone and they can go to any of our shops throughout Catalonia. These shops are open to the general public as well as people referred by social services.

Why do you do it this way?

Because this way the shopping experience is the same as that of more privileged people: the fact that people are underprivileged doesn’t mean they don’t know how to shop, it means they’re underprivileged.

We’ve always tried to make this assistance as dignified as possible. This support is an exercise in empathy towards them, because the situations they have been through or are going through are caused by a lack of opportunities or a different living environment.  There has always been a tendency towards this idea of giving handouts or acting as a “do-gooder”. And people don’t really take well to that. At Formació i Treball we want to provide a different kind of support, where people don’t feel stigmatised for being underprivileged.

Why do you think employment is such a transformative tool?

First of all, being part of something bigger and setting goals, having challenges to go into work for, is an important part of feeling fulfilled. Then, through this daily activity, the person is trained and empowered, earning rights because they are paying into the system.

Working in a market environment is the best way for them to learn and ensure their success when they enter the mainstream workforce. And let’s not forget the social aspect, which is also an essential part of work.

You mentioned the circular economy as an important aspect of the work you do. What impact do you have on environmental sustainability?

Reuse is the most sustainable and responsible way forward, and at Formació i Treball we find a use for 63% of the clothing items we handle. In the case of garments that are not suitable for sale, 31% of what we handle is recycled. In 2023 alone, we collected more than 7 million kilos of used clothing and accessories, the equivalent of reducing CO2 emissions by 177,000 tonnes!

You’ve been around for over 30 years now. How did it all start?

We were founded to meet a social need. After the Olympic Games, there was a very large pool of people who were marginalised and out of work. Càritas started a project to support women in vulnerable situations and realised that clothing management could serve as a stepping-stone for developing other skills and abilities. Formalising this work could create new jobs. In those days, the thought was not only to give them fish, but also to teach them how to fish. It was with this idea in mind that the foundation was set up to address the rampant unemployment that followed the bonanza of the Olympics.

The idea was to create jobs and business, but also to maintain strict control over economic costs. We gradually made strides, meeting people’s needs and growing with activities such as clothing management and the collection of bulky items and furniture.

Formació i Treball has been working in the field of social and labour integration for more than 30 years. What changes have you noticed in the sector and in society?

As far as labour market integration is concerned, we find that companies are not as prejudiced as they used to be. Before there was a kind of stigma and prejudice towards the people we work with, but our efforts and the rapport we have built with companies has led to a trusting relationship. And we try not to fail in the referral process: success stories always, always lead to further success stories.

The user profile has changed. We’ve noticed a major shift since the pandemic, and we’re seeing more people with mental health problems. These are people who may have been through complicated situations, who have been shut in rooms during the pandemic… When they come to us and get a job and let down their walls, the mental health issues come out. It’s the same thing that happens to all of us: you don’t get sick all year and then you go on holiday and get sick! It’s a pattern that we and our colleagues in other organisations have noticed, and it may be necessary to have a preliminary process to better deal with these circumstances.

Then there is immigration. There are a lot of people who don’t have proper documentation and it’s an obstacle course to get their papers in order. Employment is a good tool for legalisation and we legalise more people every year than any other employer in Spain, in both the integration and open market categories, helping between 90 and 100 people annually. That may not seem like a lot, but it’s a very complicated process. However, we have seen that when they do legalise their status, they no longer want to work in the informal economy, but want to consolidate the rights they have gained.

What about society?

In the past, a job was a way out of social exclusion. Today, having a job improves a person’s financial situation, but without housing or health support, there is no way out of poverty. That’s why we’re involved in joint projects with organisations working in the field of social housing… because we can’t help people overcome social exclusion on our own.

What lies ahead for Formació i Treball?

We were once told that we are a factory of opportunities. And we have always liked to think of ourselves that way: as a safe environment where people who have never had opportunities, or have not been able to take advantage of them, can thrive. In a perfect future, we would no longer exist, because that would mean we had achieved a fairer, more just and more caring society.

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