Abuses in the strawberry fields

 In News

Some Moroccan migrant strawberry pickers suffer all sorts of deceits, sexual abuses and labour exploitation after they arrive in Huelva.Voices from lawyers, labour medicine and trade unions working in the field claim that management and control systems are insufficient and perpetuate this tragedy


‘If you don’t work fast, I’ll send you back to Morocco.’That is the threat the farm boss continuously said to Salima (false name) at the last company she worked at, while she was harvesting in the fields.The nightmare of this female seasonal worker started when she arrived at the house in which Los Arenales de Mazagón SL was located, a company in the municipality of Moguer, in Huelva, that had hired her for the 2019 season to pick bilberries. The migrant woman explains that before leaving Morocco, they made her sign the employment contract, a document written in a language she didn’t know [probably Spanish].‘They showed us photos of a house with two bedrooms, a washer, refrigerator, showers, hot water and drinking water,’ she says.‘It was great.’But, that accommodation, where she would presumably be living while she worked in Huelva, did not exist.‘When we arrived, everything they had showed us was not there.’The reality was much worse: a dirty house shared with 17 women, with a broken hot-water heater and broken-down washer, and a single unlit toilet.Further, when the workday ended, they made her work more hours.

‘The manager touched me’

The worst, however, was yet to come.‘While I was working – she recounts – the boss came over to me and touched me, making it look like he was helping me.He said he liked me and asked me to give him my phone number.Fortunately, he never forced me.’These episodes alternated with propositions made by a woman at the company.‘She asked us if we were married and told us that there were many men and boys and that we could earn two workdays doing these types of things [in reference to having sexual relations].’

Salima and two other workmates filed a police report and, at present, the case is being investigated at the pre-trial investigation court in Moguer.Belén Luján and Jesús Díaz, in charge of the three women’s legal defence, believe it is a case of labour exploitation, sexual harassment and human trafficking because – they argue – it occurred in the country of origin.Salima’s account matches that of Aisha, who would also rather use a false name.Aisha reported the company that hired her two years ago, Doñana 1998 SL, and is also being legally represented by Luján and Díaz.

This migrant worker states that when she came to Huelva, in 2018, they did not let her start working and she did not receive any initial payment – as they had promised her – and they did not provide any food.She and her workmates were forced to scavenge through rubbish bins, as they had no other option, searching for scraps of food.The female workers who had been at the company longest offered them the chance of earning more money doing ‘something different’.

Extreme vulnerability

‘They told us we didn’t need to work in the fields, that we could go with men in exchange for money.’In their situation of extreme vulnerability, ‘some accepted the money; others got pregnant and had abortions.’ explains Aisha.Josefa Gómez, a social worker from the Moguer Health Clinic, assured BuzzFeed journalists three years ago that ‘during the berry-picking season, when the migrant women come, there is a spike in the number of abortions and the majority of women getting them are Moroccan, Romanian and Bulgarian’.Although Gómez, after consulting her superiors, did not want to make statements about the problems associated with the assistance offered to female migrant workers, the data obtained via the transparency law confirm this upward trend during the harvest season.In 2018, during the season (which lasts from February to May) they performed a total of 94 abortions at public hospitals in the province of Huelva, a figure in stark comparison to the 72 abortions during the four immediately preceding months.In 2017, 109 abortions were registered during the four months of the season, and 59 from June to September.However, the data provided by the Spanish government are not broken down by the patients’ nationalities, and do not provide information about the reasons behind these women making the decision to abort.

‘They told us we could go with men in exchange for money’

In the Doñana 1998 case, the testimony of one of Aisha’s colleagues is the most chilling.‘When they asked her if they touched her genitals, she said yes, both the genitals and breasts […].Faced with these actions, she pushed [the assailant] to try to get him to leave her alone.’That is one migrant woman’s accusation against one of the owners of the company from Almonte.The legal report containing her testimony assesses the events as ‘sexual advances’, one of the reasons why the plaintiff asked them to investigate the Civil Guard officer who signed the police report in question.

Many of the young women who protested the conditions and abuses suffered on the farm were retained by company staff and were then ‘pushed onto buses and sent to their country so that they couldn’t file complaints,’ claims Aisha.She and the other claimants were luckier and managed to leave and move the lawsuit forward.However, Aisha says she was not paid even one cent for the 21 days she worked in the fields.Neither Doñana 1998 nor Los Arenales de Mazagón agreed to give their version of the events recounted by Aisha and Salima in this article.

Discriminatory selection criteria

‘The deceits, threats and abuses to which these female migrant workers were submitted must be understood in the context of their extreme poverty and illiteracy,’ claims Luján.‘They are influenced by a culture that discriminates against women and enables their submission and the abuses they suffer.’Indeed, she says, ‘the selection criteria for hiring them in their homeland [Morocco] looked for: women in a certain age range, with minor children in their care, and from the Moroccan rural area, which in the immense majority of cases means the women are illiterate’.They are criteria that the lawyer believes are discriminatory because they violate article 14 of the Spanish Constitution – the equality principle – as well as other human rights that are also set out in the constitution, the United Nations Charter, the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and the European Social Charter.

Luján’s point of view matches that of José Antonio Brazo Regalado, a representative from the Andalusian Workers’ Union (SAT) in Huelva, who works continuously, defending the female migrant workers in the field.Luciano Gómez, secretary-general of UGT-FICA (General Workers’ Union-Federation of Industry, Construction and Agriculture) in Huelva, disagrees.‘I doubt it will be legally reprehensible.If you look at the substance of the matter, it is within the powers that the Spanish administration uses to guarantee that the migratory flow returns to their countries.’The Huelva district central government office did not agree to grant an interview to the authors of this article, and the Spanish secretary of state for Migrations has not provided many of the data and information requested on the hiring system and selection process.

Restrictions due to COVID-19

Nearly 19,000 Moroccan workers were authorised to work in the fields of Huelva for the 2020 season.The women obtain visas for a few months and must return to Morocco when the term expires.On 25 March, when only 7000 of the female strawberry pickers had reached Spain, Pedro Sánchez’s government announced that it had suspended hiring processes in the country of origin during the state of emergency and while border restrictions were maintained due to the coronavirus crisis.This left 11,000 women without jobs that had already been confirmed.Many – such as Fatima, a migrant worker selected for the first time – were obligated to return the money they borrowed to pay for processing their visas and buying a few bits for a trip they couldn’t make.

Although the National Agency for the Promotion of Employment and Competencies (ANAPEC) bears the weight for the selection process, this procedure is the responsibility of the Selection Committee, also made up of the Directorate-General for Migrations and the pertinent diplomatic mission, as well as the direct participation of the hiring companies.

Mediation lines questioned

The Doñana 1998 case has put the public debate on the table about the abuses, assaults and labour exploitation that some seasonal migrant workers have been reporting since the 2000s, when this hiring system started to be applied.In this setting, the Andalusian regional government´s General Directorate of Migratory Policy Coordination committed to establishing mediation lines between the female workers and the companies.In 2019, the Andalusian government started up a mediation programme via the NGO Mujeres en Zona de Conflicto (Women in Conflict Zones, MZC) and, this year, it has provided 70,000 euros in funding to the working line promoted by the Interprofessional Association for Andalusian Strawberries (Interfresa), known as the Ethical, Labour and Social Responsibility Plan (PRELSI).The natures and effectiveness of all ofthese measures have been questioned.Gómez, from the General Workers’ Union (UGT), assures that the PRELSI initiative is a damaged and lame measure because it is the business owners [via the interprofessional] ‘who do and undo’ as they like, without there being any union representing the workers.Juan Díaz, secretary general of Industry at the Huelva Workers’ Commissions (CCOO), agrees with Gómez.And Brazo Regalado sets out the situation along the same line:‘They are involved and, consequently, they cannot be impartial’.Mar Ahumada, director general of Migratory Policy Coordination at the Andalusian government, states that its work represents a substantial improvement, despite being an interested party.Ahumada argues that the four MZC mediators have a counterbalancing function to ensure that there are no strange cases and that the women are assisted well.

The case of Salima, but also that of Drissiya, a migrant seasonal worker who had an ischemic stroke and was not taken to the hospital until after three days, reveals that things don’t always work well despite the mediation.Almost two weeks after being admitted, in April 2019, Drissiya, who explained her case exclusively to the authors of this article, was discharged and returned to Morocco.Both PRELSI and MZC intervened, but neither explained to her what her labour rights were and if she could be eligible for permanent disability or file a civil liability lawsuit against the company.The woman, who could not speak or walk, had fainted two years earlier and, when attended to at the company’s farm, they said it was a heart condition.José Luis Rojas, labour medicine specialist with 20 years’ experience in the red fruit sector, stresses that the company, especially in light of her background, should have given her a medical check-up in 2019 before she started working.According to Rojas, after studying all her medical and labour documentation, Drissiya was not fit for doing loading tasks or tasks requiring physical exertion.SAT Algaida Productores, the company where the fruit picker worked, did not want to talk about the events for this article.

Rojas says that many of the procedural requirements are violated in this sector and all the medical examinations they should do are often not done.‘It is one of the largest production companies I have worked at, and only 3% of the workers were given the [obligatory] medical check-up.’What happens – Rojas wonders – when the Labour Inspectorate turns up and requests this information, and the company only gives them the fitness certifications on 3% of the workers?

The irregularities affecting the sector in Huelva, the top European exporter responsible for 98% of national red-fruit production, go much further than the group hired in their homeland.A few months ago, at the start of the current harvest season, the police arrested two owners and one manager of two companies in the province of Andalusia for having irregular migrant workers without contracts working on their farms.


David Meseguer contributed to this article.This publication was produced with funding from the European Union.The content of this document is the sole responsibility of the Surt Foundation and does not necessarily reflect the stance of the European Union.


Report published in ARA

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