Gitanos belong to a great range of economic classes and engage in many kinds of work. One of the most distinctive features of the ways they have earned a living, both historically and now, has been their avoidance of proletarianization—that is, their resistance to losing control over the organization, schedules, and products of their own work.
Data about Gitanos' work in the past is derived principally from laws and official correspondence dating from the late fifteenth to the late eighteenth centuries. These laws were repressive attempts to assimilate Gitanos by turning them into wage laborers. Authorities assumed, almost Certainly correctly, that if Gitanos became wage laborers dependent upon their employers, they would, like other Spaniards, be easier to control and supervise. Despite innumerable repressive laws and regulations directed specifically at Gitanos, however, they continued to avoid proletarianization. From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, they worked in the livestock trade (an occupation that continued into the early 1940s), as traveling livestock shearers, as traveling entertainers, and as operators of inns, some of which appear to have been way stations along smuggling routes. Although the data are sparse for the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it appears that Gitanos continued to remain self-employed throughout this period.
Today Gitanos still generally control the way they earn a living. Women and men work; so do children except when they are in school. Time analyses show that Gitanos work fewer hours than their non-Gitano neighbors to maintain the household. Gitanos work in the scrap trade; in the discountclothing and household-goods trades, where they sell on different days in different open-air municipal markets; in well-paid, short-term harvesting (which, although salaried, is similar to self-employment in that they control their own work schedules); as self-employed painters and whitewashers; and in a medley of other occupations. Their work organization is still characterized by the same features that characterized their work historically: a minimal overhead and a mobile place of business (such as selling in a variety of municipal markets rather than owning a shop); quick turnover of stock; income derived from multiple sources; a changing clientele; exchanges carried out in cash (including, today, transactions that involve more than $5,000); work that is labor-intensive, not capital-intensive; and revenues unencumbered by taxes. Gitanos have been highly successful, in other words, in exploiting the informal economy—an economy that in Spain is not hidden or "underground" but has been calculated as constituting as much as one-third of the present gross domestic product.