Migrant Seasonal Workers in Spain: Between Violence, Exploitation, and Silence

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Each year, several dozens of thousands migrant workers, in particular women, from the Maghreb (particularly Morocco), West Africa and Eastern Europe, work in the fields of Spain to feed Europe. Youssef and Najim Ouled report on the engineered precariousness and structural exploitation that they’re facing before being expelled from Spain.

Article published in The Funambulist 33 (January-February 2021) Spaces of Labor. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

“The situation of abuse and abandonment experienced by migrant workers in the agricultural fields of Spain is structural and the current health crisis has made it even more visible.” Those are the words of Fruita amb justícia social, a platform that fights for the creation of a label guaranteeing that each piece of fruit collected respects human rights. They have also denounced the lack of control over hiring, the violation of labor rights and the lack of interest in guaranteeing decent housing for seasonal workers.

Teresa Palomo1
Seasonal migrant worker in Palos de la frontera in Huelva, Andalucía. / Photo by Teresa Palomo (2018).

In 2018, the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent condemned the conditions in which migrant seasonal workers find themselves in the fields of Spain. It described widespread wage exploitation, overpopulated shantytowns (dwellings made from cardboard, pallets and plastic from the greenhouses), racial discrimination in access to housing and social services, limited access to water and electricity, and a non-existent garbage collection service. In addition to this was “harassment, extortion and beatings by the Civil Guard, presumably with the complicity of employers.” In February 2020, a month before the pandemic reached Spain, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, visited Huelva and was stunned by their conditions : “I met with workers living in a migrant settlement in conditions that rival the worst I have seen anywhere in the world.”

“The pandemic goes to show a neoliberal way of production,” Fruita amb justícia social concurred. According to the Department of Customs and Special Taxes, this sector needs around 150, 000 agricultural seasonal workers, which in 2019 made possible a 13.5 million tonne fruit and fresh vegetable export worth 13.5 billions of euros. This showed a growth of 8% in volume and a 5.5% in value since 2018. During the first trimester of 2020, advancement in these statistics were further recorded in spite of COVID-19.

The Arrival of the Pandemic ///

The consequences of COVID-19 caused the government to decree a state of emergency between March 15 and June 21. It ordered mandatory confinement, prohibiting movement except to acquire essential goods and to go to work. These measures had unequal consequences on the population. “With the pandemic these conditions have worsened,” explains Spitou Mendy, a trade unionist of Senegalese origin specializing in labor rights of migrants, and member of the Andalusian Union of Workers of Almeria (SAT). Spitou explains that “while the rest of the citizens are afraid and protect themselves from the virus, the seasonal workers are not afraid because they are not given information, nor have there been measures taken to protect them and above all, they have the financial and moral obligation to work to support the families they leave behind [in their home countries]. If they miss a day, they’re fired.” Spitou states that in El Ejido and in Níjar (Almería province), there are 3,500 and 4,000 farmworkers respectively, from the Maghreb and West Africa living in unhealthy environments. He also points out that these numbers are necessarily underestimated, because “half are in an irregular situation, they are not registered or accounted for.”