MADRID (AP) -- The British territory of Gibraltar, located near Spain's southernmost tip, has fired around 10 percent of its Spanish workforce since the beginning of this year, an organization said Saturday.
The CITYPEG group, which represents Spanish workers in Gibraltar and retirees, said 500 Spaniards had lost their jobs since January — the majority of them in the construction industry. The organization's director, Francisco Ponce, warned there was a danger that Spaniards working in public sector jobs were at risk of termination because employers were favoring natives of Gibraltar in job programs.
Calls to Gibraltar's government went unanswered Saturday.
Opposition politician Nick Cruz said "the new government stopped many building projects ongoing in Gibraltar primarily because it didn't agree with them." He added that it was natural for contractors to prefer local residents who didn't have to commute across the border from Spain.
Although Spain and Britain are both members of the European Union and NATO, a 300-year-old sovereignty dispute over Gibraltar is a nagging sore in their relations.
Britain has governed Gibraltar since 1704, when a combined Anglo-Dutch fleet captured it from Spain. Spain ceded sovereignty of Gibraltar to Britain in 1713, but has persistently sought its return ever since. Gibraltar's 30,000 residents are firmly in favor of remaining British, and in a referendum in 2002 they voted against the idea of Britain and Spain sharing sovereignty, something that antagonized Spaniards.
Relations between Spain and Gibraltar have been tense since March, when the government of Chief Minister Fabian Picardo banned Spain's fishing fleet from catching fish in the territory's waters. Picardo's Socialist Labor party was elected to office in December.
Around 5,000 Spaniards cross the border every day to find employment in Gibraltar, the statement said. While's Spain's overall unemployment rate is near 25 percent, the southern region of Andalucia bordering Gibraltar is particularly hard hit by joblessness.
Construction, wholesale and retail trade, and real estate were the mainstays of Gibraltar's $1.7 billion gross domestic product in 2011, according to government statistics, although a naval base is also an important employer.
"It is disturbing that with over 10 years of service to these companies, only the Spanish have their contracts terminated," Ponce said.
The naval base is an important strategic facility from where the U.S. and U.K. navies monitor traffic through the Strait of Gibraltar, which gives access to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean.
The Rock, as the territory is commonly known, is a popular destination with U.S. sailors, and local newspaper the Gibraltar Chronicle on Saturday said American nuclear submarine USS New Hampshire had arrived "to allow the 160 crew personnel to have some rest and recuperation."