Every year, thousands of Moroccan women move across the sea to Huelva in Andalusia, Spain for the soft fruit picking season. Often selected because they are widows or divorcees, the women arrive to find exploitative conditions including poor pay and accommodation.
The city of Huelva is one of the most contaminated in Spain, and possibly Europe.
The earth, air and water are polluted by radioactivity, chemicals and biological waste. The strawberry, blueberry and blackberry fields sit next to a chemical complex built in the 1960s.
Below the arching plastic tunnels, women crouch or kneel and pick the berries. There was temporary work in the area for 100,000 in the 2019 picking season.
Brought in on so-called ‘contracts in origin’ to pick the ‘red gold’, the women prop up an industry that generates €300 million per year, grew by 76% between 2004 and 2016, and is growing.
Labour shortages in Spain
Farms in the region are often short of labour: a few years ago a call for 20,000 extra workers only elicited 970 applications from Spanish residents.
The shortfall was made up by 19,000 women recruited from Morocco. 11,500 returned after previous seasons in the area, and 7,500 were recruited for the first time.
These women arrive in Spain on what is called a ‘contract in origin’ for the two or three months of the harvest.
They are promised the legal wage, social security cover, medical treatment and free lodging in return for their labour, but often these conditions are not met.
Overseen by the Spanish authorities
Several years ago, images emerged of women queuing in public squares, to be examined like slaves for their size, age and hands during the recruitment drives.
Now, the Moroccan public employment agency ANAPEC deals with the initial selection process.
The Spanish Ministry of the Interior sets the total number of contracts required and each region of Morocco is allocated a quota. ANAPEC oversees the initial selection, short-listing women between 21 and 45 years of age, with children.
Unions believed that single women with children are often selected as they are seen as being in greater need of money and therefore easier to exploit. Priority is also given to those that have worked in Spain before.
The grim realities
The reality for many of these women in Huelva is horrendous, many of whom are not paid the minimum wage, social security, and rent and water and electricity is often (illegally) deducted from their low wage.
They may be penalised if the fruit is bruised, dropped, or picked when over or under-ripe.
The women often put up with it because they say the conditions are similar in Morocco, where they earn up to a third less for the same jobs.
However some women have fought back. In 2018, the story of the workers’ rights abuses on Andalusia’s fruit farms reached the German press. 100 Moroccan women workers, supported by the trade union SOC SAT, had denounced their conditions to the police.
But the response from the industry was swift: their bosses brought in coaches and the women were bundled on board to be sent back to Morocco in the middle of the night.
What followed was like a film script: ten women escaped and were whisked out of the area and hidden. They remained in Andalusia and spoke out about how they had been treated.
Despite the furore little has changed.
Fatima is a tall, quiet woman from Nador in Morocco. She has lived in Spain for 12 years, working in Almeria greenhouses and translating for workers in Huelva.
She says workers “have to collect a target number of boxes of fruit and if they do not reach that number they can be sacked” she says, even though piece work is illegal in Spain.
She talks of rampant discrimination between Moroccan and European workers. “They send the Moroccan women to work in the fields, leaving Spanish and Rumanian women in the indoor job” which is perceived as easier work. “There is a lot of inequality between the different workers … and the fact that Moroccan women often cannot speak the language means that they are at the bottom of the heap.”
She mentions cases where there was not enough work for the women. She says they were left picking for just three hours a day; yet rent, electricity and ‘social security’ were deducted from their meagre earnings. The first two deductions are illegal under Spanish law and social security payments appeared to be fictitious: the women were given no official papers to prove that it had been paid.
*This article was first published on the Ethical Consumer website. The Prisma is collaborating with Ethical Consumer to translate a series of articles, which focus on workers’ rights issues in the agricultural sector in southern Spain.