Bitter fruit: labour exploitation in Andalusia and Morocco

Delia McGrath from La Via Campesina looks at workers’ rights abuses in the soft fruit business.

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 fruit. There is 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, has grown by 76% between 2004 and 2016, and is growing still.

Labour shortages in Spain

Farms in the region are often short of labour: a  recent call for 20,000 extra workers only elicited 970 applications from Spanish residents. The shortfall was made up by 19,000 women recruited directly from Morocco, 11,500 returned after previous seasons in the area, and 7,500 were recruited for the first time. 

These women are subject to what is called ‘contract in origin’, shipped to Spain 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. 

This means of recruiting labour has been used since the early 2000's when women from Eastern European were recruited. But in 2016 the industry changed tack and began to recruit Moroccan women who are seen as 'submissive' and often have more difficulties with the language.

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 candidates who pass the first cribbing are sent to Meknes for the selection by someone from the company in Spain. This year there is a video explaining the process and what to expect in Spain.

Image: exploited women's fruit picking tents

The grim realities

The reality for many of these women in Huelva is horrendous, they are not paid the minimum wage, social security, rent and water and electricity is often (illegally) deducted from their low wage. They are 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 a 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 over the past year.

We spoke to several workers about their experiences on farms in the southern Spanish town.

Fatima is a tall, quiet woman from Nador in Morocco. She Has lived in Spain for 12 years, working in Almeria in the greenhouses for many of them.

Now Fatima has moved to Huelva province to help with translations among the Moroccan seasonal workers.

She talks confidently about some of the illegal conditions on some of the farms "they 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 also 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" she continues, "and the fact that the Morrocan women cannot speak the language means that they are at the bottom of the heap."

She mentions other cases where there was not enough work for the women. She says how 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 the social security payment appeared to be fictitious, the women were given no official papers to prove that it had been paid.

A second woman we spoke to, Carmen is a small, lively woman in her forties. She has worked picking fruit for 25 years, first peaches and plums. Now, she has switched to the soft fruits under plastic.

She is currently a trade union representative and despite the difficulties and the hostility of her boss, she dreams of improving conditions for all of her fellow workers. She says: 'These days, I go to compete, not to work. Conditions have worsened'. 

She talks about punitive punishments in the farm where she works. "There is a system: if a worker commits a 'fault' they get a black mark. In the packing plant each box of fruit has a number that identifies the picker. If the fruit is damaged, over or under-ripe, the packer registers a mark against the name of that picker." she adds that, "Any fruit on the ground also earns a black mark. Five of these are a 'slight fault' but once one has accumulated two 'slight faults' they are sent home for three days with no pay."

She also complains about the lack of sick pay and even makes claims of sexual abuse at the hands of bosses.

Ana, born and bred in Huelva province, also talks about a culture of bullying and intimidation

She says the work has changed tremendously: "expectations from the companies are very high, the fruit must be perfect and nothing left behind."

She says that the companionship and team spirit has gone. "The women used to enjoy working together, sometimes baking a cake or bringing something to share with their mates. If someone was getting left behind they would help each other out to make up the kilos. We were all equal" she says, "all in the same boat."

However, this has changed with all the norms and restrictions and productivity demands. "The workers are afraid," she says; "you are told off if you lag behind, and if you try to help someone out."

 "In some places, they pay a little more to line managers or overseers who just spend their time berating the workers. They spend all day shouting and belittling the fruit pickers so everyone is humiliated" she adds.

A growing industry in Morocco

Increasingly, though, Spanish companies are setting up greenhouses in Morocco on leased land, because they can produce fruit and vegetables at a fraction of the cost and without the stricter controls of the EU. They receive incentives from the government and spreading into towns like Larache on the Atlantic coast, an hour south of Tangier. 

In Larache today there is the same type of semi greenhouses that one can see in Huelva. Women pick the fruit, earning €7 per day. They have to work with a plastic box on their back, which they fill with the carefully picked fruit until the box weighs around 25 kilos. 

After work, they are crowded into panel vans where, like livestock, they are driven back to their villages.

In recent months, several of the vans have crashed killing workers. On the 25th May, two pregnant women died and 20 more were injured. The trade union FNSA says that this is a regular occurrence.

They say that fear is the biggest hindrance to the women denouncing their situation. They say that because of the bad conditions there, the women migrate to Huelva and so the situation in the area does not improve. The women face exploitation on both sides of the sea, weakening their ability to address either situation.

Free Issue

Sign up now to our email newsletter for a free digital copy of Ethical Consumer magazine.

Sign up now for our email newsletter