‘Everyone knows what’s happening, but nobody wants to see it’
Belén Luján, lawyer and specialist in criminal law is defending – via the Association for Administration of Justice Users (AUSAJ) – free of charge, several legal cases for female Moroccan migrant strawberry pickers who reported two Huelva companies for non-payment, bad working conditions, sexual abuses and assaults in 2018 and 2019.
News on the violation of the rights of these female workers dates back to the beginning of the 2000s, when a hiring system was started up in their country of origin to meet the workforce needs of producers for harvesting strawberries.
What do the mistreatments and abuses consist of that the female Moroccan strawberry pickers reported?
It is very difficult to summarise it completely but, essentially, the migrant women explain that they don’t have contracts, are not paid, they are kicked out whenever the company wants, and punishedby not letting them work.They tell them they cannot go to the toilet when they are picking fruit and cannot even stand up to stretch without being belittled by supervisors shouting at them and putting pressure on them.These women live stacked inside of metal containers with zero hygiene conditions.They don’t have drinking water, or hot water; if they get ill, they won’t take them to the doctor or try to charge them to take them to a clinic; when they arrive at the farm, they are not given work and receive nothing to eat and no money.And it is under these aberrant conditions that they receive offers, through intermediaries, who tend to be people the company trusts, to work as prostitutes.Then there are attempts to forcefully have sex with them and rapes.Under these circumstances, when the workers have raised their voices, they send them home to Morocco to make them shut up or they have had to escape to complain, like what happened to former migrant women workers at the company Donaña 1998 in 2018, and then with another group of seasonal migrant labourers last year, also represented by AUSAJ.
That is labour exploitation and sexual exploitation.
Yes, but the situations explained by the women and the proof we have also point to the crime of human trafficking, basically because the deceit these extremely-vulnerable women are subjected to starts in Morocco.There, they are promised certain working conditions, including accommodation [since during the harvest season, the female workers live on the farms], which is far from what they find when they reach Huelva, a reality that fits the profile for this type of crime.In fact, when the case of the 10 female migrant workers at Doñana 1998 was heard by the National High Court, Central Pre-trial Investigation Court number 1 gave credence to their statements, considering that there were signs of the crime of human trafficking, but this court was stayed in favour of the pre-trial investigation courts of La Palma del Condado, in Huelva, because there were two legal proceedings open there.These courts did not hear the crime of human trafficking.We are now waiting for the Supreme Court to decide on the matter of competence, meaning whether it is the National High Court or these courts which must take the case.
How is it possible for legal workers arriving in Huelva, who were hired in their country of origin, to suffer mistreatments, abuses and assaults?
The problem is how the system is designed, which objectifies the women, and widespread corruption.Everyone knows what is happening, but nobody wants to see it. If you do see it, then you can’t take your eyes off it.As pointed out in 2002 by the UN Expert Group on Human Trafficking of Women and Girls:‘corruption is inextricably linked to the trafficking of human beings.States with high corruption levels have low standards with regard to the effort assigned to fighting human trafficking.’There is also the influence of the idiosyncrasies of Moroccan women, of the Muslim culture and their fear of being named.
And, in this regard, what have you discovered when filing legal complaints with the justice dept.?
For the migrant women, it is all incomprehensible and extremely difficult.From the very start, we have faced duty courtsthathaven’t wanted to take the legal reports of the migrant female workers.They were ‘invited’ to come back the following Monday, three days later, when it was highly likely that the women who wanted to file the reports would no longer be there.There are criminal courts that have refused to investigate a list of female workers who wanted to file a complaint and were returned to Morocco, courts that agreed to provisionally dismiss the criminal complaints because the claimants, who were admitted to hospital, did not appear.We have seen it all.Also, the social courts, for example, which accepted that the migrant women’s contracts were not provided, and that nothing more than an official unsigned form was provided.
The female migrant workers who reported the company Doñana 1998 have demanded that a labour inspector and a Civil Guard officer be investigated.Why?
The role of the Civil Guard and the Labour Inspectorate have special significance.On 1 June, when we finally managed to file a legal complaint, the Civil Guard agreed to go with us to the fields, given that we had received [with regard to her and another lawyer also representing the migrant workers] threats from the company in question.The purpose was to pick up a list of workers they wanted to add to the complaint.When they gave us the list, we saw that there were over 100 female migrant workers on it.Despite this, the only investigation conducted by the police was what they investigated about us, the lawyers and attorneys filing the report.They didn’t take a single step to identify the victims or give them the chance to also file legal complaints.The police report opened on 1 June was closed already the next morning, leaving the victims under the power of the company.The next day, the majority of these seasonal migrant women were expelled from Spain in the presence of the police.That same 3 June, three of the four women who managed to escape before being returned to their country went to the Civil Guard police station in Rocío, Huelva to report sexual abuses and assaults. The captain, who had been on the farm that day, was aggressive and negative.Indeed, they had to rip up the original reports and give their entire statements again, because what the officer had written did not match what the women had told him.They didn’t even want to let one of them file a report and, when I complained, he spat out: ‘Who do you think the judge will believe, you or me?’In 20 years, I had never seen anything like it.
And what happened with the Labour Inspectorate?
In this specific case, we have a labour inspector who, in her function, used the company and its spokespersons as her sole source of knowledge.Nobody asked the migrant women anything, absolutely no investigations were done beyond taking the statements of the company and those on its side, not even giving importance to the breach of basic health and safety regulations.In fact, in a report by the inspectorate based on a visit to Doñana 1998, when the female migrant workers were not even there, it stated that there were no signs of abuses or insults.However, the most serious fact is that the company has not given the employment contracts to any of the plaintiffs in the Doñana 1998 case, or their wage receipts.Despite these breaches, the Labour Inspectorate did not even initiate an infringement procedure.Remember that the investigative reports published by Correctiv and Buzzfeed also mentioned other cases of sexual abuse and assaults that had occurred in 2017 at the same company.
Before, you referred to the vulnerability of these women.What do you mean exactly?
This vulnerability is explained by extreme poverty in many cases and also by their illiteracy.Further, they are immersed in a culture that discriminates against women and enables their docility, submission and the abuses from which they suffer.It merits recalling that the selection criteria for hiring them in their homeland looked for that: women in a certain age range, with families (minor children in their care) and from the Moroccan rural area, which in the immense majority of cases means the women are illiterate.
Do you think these requirements are discriminatory?
In my opinion, yes they are, because they violate article 14 of our Constitution, the equality principle, as well as other human rights that are also set out in the Spanish Constitution, the United Nations Charter, the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the European Social Charter, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights…
What does it entail for these migrant women to file a complaint?I mean with regard to the repercussions it could have in their country of origin, within their families…
All Moroccan women who file complaints on abuses and situations of prostitution – even when just referring to an attempt or a proposition – remain stigmatised, regardless of whether they resisted and was against their wishes. Muslim women who complain can end up considering suicide or suffer from absolute social exclusion in extreme cases.Pressure and social conditioning are fundamental for fully understanding this issue.For the Doñana 1998 female workers, they have received death threats, attempts to take away custody of their children, divorces…For these women, the entire legal process is extremely painful and tough.
I understand that is very difficult for these cases to achieve justice…
Yes, extremely, first because of how afraid the women are.Then, because the majority, within the minority who are ready to take the enormous step forward of daring to report, go home and do not continue with the lawsuit.Precisely, the State Prosecutor General has complained bitterly about that.And when the women do actually stay here, they face a huge series of obstacles, they are questioned and not offered any support.
* ‘This interview was possible thanks to the contributions of Quique Badia and David Meseguer’
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.
Originally published in La Independent and Catalunya Plural