The following article is written by guest author Sara Martinez, a Senior Consultant at Verité who resides in Spain, based on her independent research in Spain’s agricultural sector and immigration from Africa.
Labor conditions in the strawberry fields of Andalusia, Spain are harsh for all workers regardless of their nationality: Salaries below the minimum wage, unpaid overtime, long working hours without breaks, and exposure to dangerous agrochemicals without protection are among the issues experienced by workers. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased these workers’ vulnerability to labor exploitation and creates even greater, possibly lethal, health risks.
This case study offers a view into the recruitment process and working conditions of African workers in Andalusia, Spain during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. While their situation may not be wholly identical to that of all workers in the agricultural sector, similar conditions are being encountered on farms and plantations around the world. Migrant workers in agricultural sectors are crucial to the nourishment of millions of people, as well as to countries’ economies, yet they are often not taken into account in discussions of COVID-19.
Moroccan Women in Spain’s Strawberry Sector
The Andalusian berry sector needs large numbers of workers — a demand that could not be met by Spanish workers even before the outbreak of COVID-19. In response to a December 2019 government advertisement seeking 10,000 workers for the berry harvest, only 600 Spanish residents applied. To address this labor shortage, employers hired temporary foreign workers from Bulgaria, Romania, sub-Saharan Africa, and Morocco.
On March 12, 2020, just one day before Morocco closed its borders and Spain declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, about 7,000 Moroccan women arrived in the Spanish province of Huelva, Andalusia to temporarily work harvesting strawberries and other berries. They were among the first of 17,000 women hired by an association of berry producers through the Moroccan Ministry of Employment under a bilateral agreement between Spain and Morocco.
The practice of hiring temporary Moroccan workers to harvest berries in Huelva began in the 2000s. Visas are only provided to women who meet the following criteria: 1) They must have previous experience working in agriculture, 2) they must be below the age of 45, and 3) they must have young children in order to guarantee they will return home after the harvest. However, despite the third qualification, about one in four of these women remain in Spain as an undocumented worker after her contract expires. These undocumented women are forced into the informal economy where they are even more vulnerable to exploitation.
A Six-Month Contract for a Year’s Worth of Income
Before being hired by Spanish employers, the Moroccan Ministry of Employment puts the women seeking jobs through an exhaustive selection and hiring process, which includes refuting their neighbors’ criticisms and rumors. Before departure, the women have to invest EUR 350 for the visa fee and to pre-pay for the food and supplies needed for the first week of their stay in Spain. They also have to cover expenses related to their transport from rural areas to the urban areas where they are interviewed. Moroccan women make these investments of time and money in the hopes of receiving a temporary job that will help them cover their families’ basic needs; if everything goes according to plan, the money they earn in Spain will sustain their families for almost a whole year in Morocco.
Contracts are signed in Morocco and the workers then receive a temporary permit to reside and work in Spain for a maximum of six months. Employers have the right to rescind contracts at any time, giving them a tremendous amount of power over workers. When contracts expire or are rescinded, migrant workers must immediately return to their countries of origin.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has left approximately 10,000 Moroccan women without the employment they rely on, leaving their families without the economic support they so badly need. Additionally, many women have likely become indebted to banks, informal money lenders, or family members to pay the visa fee and transport and living expenses.
Silence or Dismissal
Moroccan women’s continued employment on farms often depends on their silence, so it is improbable that they will complain about labor violations or physical, sexual, or verbal abuse, never mind a lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to help prevent contracting or spreading COVID-19. Factors that contribute to a lack of complaints include physical and social isolation in rural areas far from Spain’s urban centers with Moroccan populations; a lack of Spanish fluency; indebtedness; and a fear of reprisals, including dismissal, blacklisting, and being deported before being able to pay off any debts incurred. Furthermore, women who are dismissed and deported are not able to make complaints from Morocco.
Despite these challenges, NGOs, unions, and international and local media outlets have documented a number of labor violations, including deceptive recruitment; a lack of compliance with contracts; passport retention; arbitrary dismissals; unfair disciplinary measures; discrimination; long working hours; a lack of breaks and paid vacations; a failure to pay workers for all hours worked; wages lower than promised; a lack of health and safety protections; failure of employers to enroll workers in social security; and sexual abuse. In June 2018, 10 Moroccan workers filed a complaint of sexual abuse, rape, and labor exploitation to a court in Huelva, but the court dismissed the charges six months later without having heard the testimony of the workers.
COVID-19 in Spain’s Berry Sector
The COVID-19 pandemic has further increased the vulnerability of these already at-risk migrant workers. There is extreme crowding in both worker housing and transport: Up to eight people share a single room in the inhumane living conditions in the settlements where a large majority of the workers live, and workers are crammed into vehicles to transport them to and from farms. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, reported in February 2020 that workers in Huelva “live like animals” in crowded housing made of plastic, cardboard, and pallets that lacks electricity, water, and sanitation, making COVID-19 social distancing and sanitization protocols impossible to adhere to. Yet, this situation is unfolding in a region in which the berry sector generates EUR 600 million per year.
Recently, nine large businesses in the berry sector have been cited for labor violations for neglecting to implement measures to protect workers from COVID-19, including failure to provide workers with gloves, masks, and water in fields and warehouses. The collective Jornaleras de Huelva en Lucha indicates that workers in the berry sector often work in close physical proximity to one another in violation of social distancing protocols, and in the case of greenhouses, without adequate ventilation. There is also a complete lack of sufficient company-provided transportation to ensure that workers can safely transit to and from work.
One of the largest berry producers in Huelva recently fired a group of workers for allegedly demanding that the company implement measures to protect them from COVID-19 infection. The workers were rehired after a local congresswoman advocated on their behalf.
The large area of light blue in the map above is a satellite image depicting the
tens of thousands of greenhouses of El Ejido, Almeria, Spain. Photo credit: NASA
The Greenhouses of Almería
The province of Almería, Andalusia is known internationally for its greenhouses, which cover tens of thousands of hectares of land (see photo above). Known as the “sea of plastic,” the massive expanse of greenhouses in this area can clearly be seen from space. The province is an important supplier of fruits and vegetables to supermarkets across Europe and according to data from the Almería Association of Fruit and Vegetable Producer Organizations (COEXPHAL), the province exports EUR 2.5 billion in fruit and vegetables each year. The sector employs 40,000 workers from 150 different countries, the majority of whom are from Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa.
As is the case in Huelva, African workers in Almería are subjected to rampant racism, xenophobia, low wages, and poor working and living conditions, with workers housed in crowded shacks that lack electricity, water, and basic sanitation services. This prevents them from being able to adhere to the recommended social distancing and sanitation protocols necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Army trucks deliver water to worker encampments two times per week, but workers who are unable to be present when the water is distributed (due to work, illness, or hoping to avoid the crowded conditions encountered during water distribution) have no means to obtain water as they would have to walk a number of kilometers to retrieve it and COVID-19 containment protocols prohibit people from traveling more than a kilometer from their homes. Undocumented immigrants are especially unlikely to break these protocols, ask for assistance, or report labor violations due to their fear of deportation. They also lack access to the national health service.
Workers in Almería, like Huelva, are subjected to a number of labor violations, are not provided with adequate protection against the coronavirus, and are dismissed for complaining about this lack of protection. For example, the Union for Fieldworkers (SOC-SAT Almería) has reported that over 20 workers were dismissed from a farm in Almería for requesting that measures be taken to protect them from COVID-19. Days later, 12 more workers were unjustly fired. According to testimony from the dismissed workers, they were paid below the minimum wage, lacked access to water, and had to eat on the floor.
A coalition of 27 NGOs has issued a joint declaration, “Without Rights For Agri-Food Workers, Europe’s Food Supplies Rest On Shaky Ground,” calling on the European Union to regularize migrant agricultural workers and provide them with protective measures against the coronavirus. While this advocacy has resulted in some improvements, there is still a long way to go. Businesses in the berry sector have yet to take meaningful action to address the multitude of risks faced by African workers in Andalusia. The Spanish government has since provided the Labor Inspectorate with instructions to include the monitoring of working hours, wages, forced labor, human trafficking, harassment and abuse, and the prevention of workplace risks in their inspection protocols. Subsequently, representatives of agricultural producers requested the resignation of the Minister of Labor stating, “Spain is in Europe… there are no slaves here.”
Essential but Neglected
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharper focus the world’s dependence on migrant workers to perform essential work native workers often do not choose to do. But, as is evident in Spain, a country ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, migrant workers in the agricultural sector around the world are not being offered the protections critical to their health and livelihoods.
Below is a list of recommendations for agricultural producers that can be applied to better safeguard migrant farmworkers during the pandemic:
- Adhere to the Dhaka Principles when recruiting and hiring temporary Moroccan workers.
- Create a joint producer code for best agricultural practices that includes labor standards and occupational safety and health protocols, including guidance related to COVID-19.
- Train managers, supervisors, and workers on these standards and provide them with written materials in Spanish, Arabic and other languages spoken by immigrant workers, along with graphics and drawings for those who are illiterate.
- Train supervisors on harassment and abuse and create a protocol to respond to harassment and abuse.
- In responding to labor shortages and surges in demand, ensure that ethical recruitment and hiring measures are in place and that there is no forced overtime.
- Ensure that workers provide accurate information about their working and living conditions and that they are provided with written contracts in a language that they understand prior to arriving in Spain.
- Adequately manage workplaces, worker accommodations, and shift schedules to reduce social contact and facilitate social distancing.
- Ensure that facilities are regularly and thoroughly deep cleaned each time a sick or contagious person is known to have been on the premises.
- Provide workers with sufficient PPE, including masks and gloves, handwashing stations throughout workplaces, and sanitation supplies.
- Provide workers with information and training about risks related to COVID-19 and ways that they can reduce their risk of infection.
- Provide paid sick leave to all categories of workers, including newly-hired and temporary workers. At a minimum, companies must adhere to relevant legal guidance. Where the law is silent or inadequate, at least two weeks of paid sick leave should be provided (or the part-time equivalent) for workers exhibiting symptoms.
- Mandate that workers who are symptomatic or know they have been exposed to COVID-19 to stay home until the period of contagion has passed (following guidance from public health officials). Workers must be symptom-free and no longer contagious before returning to work.
- Refrain from exerting direct or indirect pressure or incentives for workers to report to work if not healthy or before fully recovered from illness.
- Ensure that all workers have access to adequate health services, including undocumented workers who are not eligible for the national health service.
- Develop a grievance system that is adequate to workers’ needs, language fluency, and levels of literacy and technology access, and ensure that workers are guaranteed confidentiality and that reprisals are strictly prohibited.
For more information, please contact Sara Martinez at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: MARISINA/shutterstock.com
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