Why Southern Europe’s berry farms rely on migrant labour without rights

Why Southern Europe's berry farms rely on migrant labour without rights

Migration, specifically of undocumented migrants and those hired in their country of origin but without legal residence, translates into a cheap and flexible pool of labour. In this 2019 photograph, a group of migrant workers talk in front of the greenhouses where they work, in Almeria, south-east Spain.

(AFP/Benjamin Mengelle/Hans Lucas/Hans Lucas)

Over the course of the 1980s, the countryside of Huelva in southern Spain, once home to cereal crops, olive groves and fruit trees, transformed into a monotonous landscape of greenhouses and made Spain one of the world’s leading exporters of strawberries and red fruits. The strawberry companies mainly employ women and, since the mid-2000s, these women have increasingly been migrant workers.

The berry sector requires the labour of 100,000 people every season, which runs from February to June. In addition to seasonal workers from Spain, they include women hired from Morocco through programmes organised by the strawberry employers’ association along with the Spanish and Moroccan authorities, as well as male and female migrants from countries like Senegal. Many of these workers survive in slums such as those in Lepe and Palos de la Frontera.

According to the former United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, who visited Huelva in early 2020, the thousands of residents of these settlements “live like animals,” with no electricity, running water, sanitation or any other public services, while being subjected to all manner of blackmail and abuse.

As Equal Times was able to confirm during its visit to the Palos de la Frontera settlement, strawberry companies charge residents for the pallets they use to build their shacks, at a rate of €1.50 per pallet. These shacks, which end up costing between €300 and €500 to build, often catch fire, a frequent occurrence resulting from precarious living conditions and institutional neglect.

Residents are regularly forced to pay for a work contract in order to gain access to coveted residency permits or to simply register themselves with authorities. Once strawberry season is over, many embark on a nomadic route that takes them to the greenhouses of Almería and Lleida in Spain, or to France.

Day labourers hired in their country of origin face all manner of abuses. Many go into debt in order to travel to Huelva and, once there, do not work or get paid for the agreed number of hours. They live in isolation on the farms themselves, several kilometres from the village, a situation which encourages abuse. Though the practice is illegal, their rent is often deducted from their pay. The workers’ long list of grievances has been documented by the team of lawyers from the Brigada de Observación Feminista, who paid a visit to the fields of Huelva last May. Their report points to the “constant and flagrant violation” not only of basic labour rights, but also “of the fundamental rights of personal dignity, physical and moral integrity, and the rights to freely assemble and to form trade unions”.

In 2018, several female seasonal workers from Morocco denounced repeated sexual abuse and called for support for a burgeoning feminist movement. Three years later, the association Jornaleras de Huelva en Lucha (JHL) was formed, led by Ana Pinto and Najat Bassit.

Pinto and Bassit, day labourers from Spain and Morocco respectively, have become the visible faces of a struggle that brings together many women who prefer to remain anonymous because they know that, in Huelva, anyone who speaks out is liable to be punished (usually three days without work and pay) or lose their work entirely.

With scant trade union representation in the area, JHL functions as a de facto union. “The issues at stake in our struggle include labour and sexual abuse, racism, and ecological consequences because red fruit monocultures in mega-greenhouses are drying up our water resources and are already impacting the aquifers of Doñana. According to some studies, if we continue on like this, we will not only be left without irrigation, but also without water to drink,” warns Pinto.

Abuse is commonplace in fields throughout Europe

In the fields of Huelva, abuse and exploitation are the rule rather than the exception. According to a report by the Italian organisation Terra! E(U)xploitation, the same is true in other agricultural regions throughout southern Europe. Their study concludes that abuses at tajos (places of work) are widespread and include piece-rate wages as well as failure to report all days actually worked. Agro-industrial employers utilise such measures to offset recent increases to Spain’s interprofessional minimum wage, which has been a major thorn in their side.

Journalist and co-author of the report, Mariangela Paone, shared her impressions with Equal Times: “Although legislation varies from country to country, in general terms, there are many similarities in the situation of workers in Huelva, Almeria, Murcia, southern Italy and Greece.” In the Spanish province of Murcia, temporary work agencies (ETTs) commonly function as intermediaries which ensure that companies save on social security contributions at the cost of making employees precarious. In Italy, informal recruitment networks persist (the caporalato [gangmasters], widespread in the country’s south), while in the strawberry-growing region of Manolada, Greece, it is common for workers to be paid around €24 for a full day’s work. The report’s conclusions are overwhelming: exploitation and illegal employment is the norm in the fields of southern Europe.

Such widespread abuses are made possible by laws on foreign nationals. “Agricultural labour is the main occupation to which people without regular administrative status have access. Due to all the obstacles standing in the way of regularisation, they are easily prayed upon and blackmailed, and cannot ask for anything. They are given work here today, there tomorrow, all with no certainty that they will be paid,” says Paone. “It’s clear that the law on foreign nationals must be modified. If thousands of people are completely unprotected [due to irregular status], this will create a labour pool that will not complain because they face expulsion,” she adds.

Migration, specifically of undocumented migrants and those hired in their country of origin but without legal residence, therefore translates into a cheap and flexible pool of labour that additionally serves to discipline local workers:

“If you protest on the job, if you demand your rights, they’ll tell you ‘If you don’t like it get out, I have 3,000 people out there who will do it for half the money,’” says Pinto. “By doing this, they stoke conflict and hateful rhetoric.” Indeed, in towns in Huelva such as Lepe, Vox and other far-right parties that encourage xenophobia and racism have become the majority.

The demand for flexible labour in European agriculture is thus linked with restrictive immigration laws. Anthropologist Alicia Reigada, whose doctoral thesis deals with the plight of seasonal workers in Huelva, calls this “institutional racism” that “favours exclusion and racism” by constructing a category of undocumented migrants who are exposed to all kinds of abuses. For this reason, the European border system requires “structural changes, not just quick fixes that don’t address the model itself”.

Complex solutions for structural problems

“Recruiting workers in their countries of origin is very useful for the berry sector,” says Reigada. The border system facilitates the cheap labour that the sector demands, while a handful of large multinationals completely control value in global chains.

Of the three major phases of agribusiness (research, production and distribution), local entrepreneurs only control the second phase. In the case of the strawberry sector in Spain, laboratories in California and Florida largely control innovation, while at the other end of the chain, large distributors control prices, formats and quality standards thanks to their oligopolistic power: six large groups, led by Mercadona, Carrefour and Lidl, control 55 per cent of the distribution of all food products (in Spain).

Caught between the rising prices demanded by laboratories for raw materials and the increasingly low prices offered by distributors, local entrepreneurs ensure their profitability at the expense of workers who face increasingly miserable conditions.

If these problems are indeed structural, they require solutions that address the complexity of the situation. As Paone argues, labour inspections should be carried out at the European level because “the problem is European. If it is treated as nothing more than a local problem, we may be able to do away with abuses in Huelva, but they will simply move to Greece”.

What role should consumers play in all of this? The Jornaleras de Huelva en Lucha reject boycotts of Huelva strawberries which, if not accompanied by other measures, would not only not solve their problems but could actually make them worse by putting them out of work. Much more profound transformations are required: “The agro-industrial model must gradually be transformed into a model that is in balance with local ecosystems,” concludes Reigada.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Brandon Johnson