MADRID - In Madrid's main food market, one of the biggest in the world, the poor scavenge for discarded fruit and vegetables.

Hunting for fruit tossed aside among the delivery trucks at the Mercamadrid, their plight is bleak evidence of Spain's stalled economy, and a jobless queue of five million people.

A new right-leaning government led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has promised to create jobs but has also vowed harsh spending cuts in every sector except for retirement pensions. Santos Perez, a 37-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic, picks up fruit that has tumbled to the ground outside the market's loading docks. "It is worth looking here because we need it," Perez said.

Like almost 1.5 million other families in a country suffering a 21.5-percent jobless rate, Perez and his wife live without employment. He lost his construction job when the property bubble collapsed in 2008.

Smiling, Perez says he has hope that Rajoy, whose Popular Party took power after a crushing election win November 20, can fulfil his promise to kick-start the economy. "He said he was going to create work, we will see," he said. "I hope the situation changes." On a cold winter morning, between the bustle of lorries delivering produce to the immense market complex, those hardest hit by the economic crisis are trying to survive.

"There are many of us in our family, more than 20 counting my aunts and uncles, cousins and their children," said Veronica Luna, a 25-year-old Bolivian carrying a box of slightly rotten apples. "We did not buy them. A man who was unloading a lorry told us we could take what we wanted," she said.

Any food will help, she said. "In my home only the women have work." Others are luckier.

Alongside a pair of African immigrants approaching a container of waste fruit and vegetables, Rodrigue, a 20-year-old from Cameroon, hauls about 20 empty fruit boxes.

"The sellers don't give us much, five cents for every box collected," Rodrigue said. "But I don't have any other work and begging is very shameful," he said in French, as yet unable to speak Spanish fluently.

Immigrants seeking discarded food at the market outnumber Spaniards, many of whom are unwilling to speak of their hardships. Provisional data by the National Statistics Institute show 21.8 percent of the Spanish population lives in poverty, compared to 19.5 percent in 2009 and 20.7 percent in 2010.

"Next year will be worse," said Carlos Susias, head of the European Network for the Fight Against Poverty and Social Exclusion in Spain, with the new right-leaning government planning to slash state spending by at least 16.5 billion euros ($21.7 billion) so as to trim the bulging public deficit.

"Poverty is not a divine punishment, it is the consequence of economic and political decisions," said Susias, calling on Rajoy to avoid cutting areas such as health and public education. In Mercamadrid, wholesale fruit seller Julian Blanco said people had come in search for discarded food for the past four or five years. At the end of the day, many of the leftovers go to the Food Bank, a not-for-profit foundation that distributes the food to social organisations.

"It is for soup kitchens, associations that help people at risk -- former addicts, immigrants, battered women," said Celia Fernandez, head of the centre, which handles about 3,000 kilograms (6,600 pounds) of food daily. "Organisations are seeing more and more people seeking help and the Food Bank has a waiting list," she said.

Catholic charity Caritas said in its latest report that the number of requests for help it receives in Spain surged from 910,812 in 2007 to more than 1.8 million last year.