Moroccan seasonal strawberry-pickers’ judicial agony

 In News

A year and a half after reporting the Huelva-based company Doñana 1998 S.L. for non-payment, poor working conditions, abuse and sexual assaults, twelve Moroccan day workers continue to demand justice. They maintain that the courts of Palma del Condado, in Huelva, do not want to investigate the facts and highlight irregularities in certain Civil Guards and the Labour Inspectorate’s actions.


When Fátima arrived at Doñana 1998 S.L., a strawberry and berry producer in Almonte (Huelva), no one gave her any instructions or a task to complete. Despite having been hired in Morocco as a seasonal worker to pick strawberries,  Fátima – not her real name as she prefers to remain anonymous – never received any money for her maintenance, nor did the company provide her with food. She told Público that after living in a container shed on the producer’s agricultural estate for several days along with other women in the same situation as her, and once the supplies that she brought with her from Morocco had run out, she had to look for food “through the garbage”.

And in addition to lying about the working conditions that were promised when she was selected to work in Spain through ANAPEC, the Moroccan National Agency for the Promotion of Employment and Skills, Fátima also tells us about even worse things happening, including sexual harassment. According to Fátima, this was often organised by pimps, Moroccan workers who had been working at the company longer and who, also facing the extreme vulnerability that the recently-arrived season workers experienced, were offered the chance to earn extra money by doing ‘something’ different. At around four o’clock in the afternoon, the farm looked like a ‘brothel’, Fátima describes, referring to the men who would park at the entrance and the women who entered and left the premises.

Although Fátima did not succumb to the pressure placed on her to participate in those activities, many of her co-workers felt they had no choice, and at least one, according to statements collected in a police report (reference 399/2018 in the legal documents related to the case), was sexually assaulted.That seasonal worker reported the owners of the company to the police for touching her genitals and breasts without her consent, facts that the chief of the El Rocío (Huelva) Civil Guard Post, who signed the police document in question, described as “sexual innuendo”.

Although Fátima did not experience this type of aggression, when her husband found out what had happened there, he divorced her. Now, she says, “my life is a mess” and she is far from her son, who lives in Morocco with his grandmother.

Although this is not the first time that fruit companies in Huelva have been accused of this sort of thing, never before 2018 have cases like these been so wide-spread in the media or have any moved so far along in court. The events, reported to the police by Fátima and other seasonal workers who were also hired by Doñana 1998, took place between March and June 2018 and are now in the hands of the courts of first instances 1 and 3 of La Palma del Condado, Huelva. One judge has recently, for the second time, closed the case regarding sexual harassment and assault bought forward by four of Fátima’s co-workers.

The dismissal of the case was issued after the women did not testify, which, according to their lawyer Belén Luján, occurred because of the ‘post-traumatic stress’ the complainants were going through; their lawyer unsuccessfully requested a postponement of the date due to this situation. On the day they were going to make their statements, the women were treated in the emergency room for “anxiety and loss of consciousness due to stress”, which was corroborated to Público by Esther Sanguiao, the psychologist who has treated them throughout the judicial processes.

The price of reporting crimes in Morocco

In addition to these horrendous experiences in Huelva and their current legal fight in Spain, the lawyer goes on to explain, the day workers also have pending cases in Morocco. In fact, four of them could lose custody of their children because of complaints filed by relatives against them when they learned of the sexual nature of the lawsuits. In Morocco, adds Jesús Díaz (who, together with Luján, is the legal representative of the Moroccan workers), it does not matter whether the sex was consensual sex or if it was sexual assault, “whether they were raped or not is irrelevant, they are dirty”.

In this sense, the lawyers have repeatedly requested and continue to demand that the complainants testify with measures to protect their identity. “If their families have access to videos or documents [where it is said that they were sexually harassed or forced] that would result in social exclusion” explains Díaz. The lawyer believes that if they testify without protection, the defendants, who are present in the case, would have access to the video of those statements and could threaten the women with sending those recordings to their families, “one of the managers of the Doñana 1998 company has already done this with a video where he accused the day workers of prostituting themselves.” The lawyer goes on to say that some of the relatives have no idea what these women have gone through and are simply still in Spain, working.

Fátima confirms that the man in the videos threatening to send the recording to Morocco is one of the owners of the Doñana 1998 S.L. company.

The accusation: “There is a clear reluctance to investigate”

The other open case in La Palma del Condado, specifically in the court of instruction 1 and relating to the labour rights of a total of 10 workers, was dismissed in April of this year. A decision that Luján has also appealed recently considering that there is “a clear reluctance to investigate this case, and that all the arguments [justifying its dismissal] are based on prejudices”. By way of example, the lawyer explains that there has been no investigation into the veracity of the lists of workers that appear as evidence in the investigation. There are two texts, one that reports the company’s bad practices and the other that maintains that the company has done nothing wrong and that the complainants have made the lawsuit up for legal purposes so that they can continue to live in Spain. These documents were signed by 109 and more than 130 day workers, respectively.

Badia Zekkari, one of the alleged signatories of the document supporting the company, declared in an interview with the Moroccan media, Larache News, that the employer did not pay them. Furthermore, Zekkari also explained that they had expelled the seasonal workers from the farm and sent them back to Morocco so that they would not speak of the matter, after they had contacted Luján and members of the Andalusian Workers’ Union (SAT). This day worker also confirmed that they were aware of many cases of harassment and one of rape. Público contacted the author of the interview and verified the content of the video, published in Moroccan Arabic. “We have no doubt that the list of women who accuse the day workers of lying is false, and that it was simply made up to defend company,” says the lawyer for whom, with this document, the company intended to counter the complainants.

Possible victims of trafficking

In addition to requesting the reopening of the case, the lawyers also request that the investigation be extended to criminal offences of human traffickingand that the investigating court number 1 refer the case to the Spanish High Court. This lawsuit, Luján argues, responds to the fact that ‘the scam’ starts in Morocco, and she further believes that the crime of human trafficking “takes on an international scope that exceeds the jurisdiction of this court.”

In this sense, Fátima confirms that during the selection process managed by the Moroccan agency ANAPEC, they told her that she would work from Monday to Saturday and that she would earn 40 euros per day, but that when she first arrived in Spain she did not work for the first 15 days and was not paid a penny for picking strawberries for 21 days. In fact, the Spanish High Court initially processed but later dismissed on the grounds of competence a lawsuit the day workers filed for all the abuses and aggressions suffered, giving credibility to the lawyer’s hypothesis that there was evidence of trafficking in the alleged facts. Thus, the court considered that this type of crime did not fall within its jurisdiction and decided that, considering “the reported crime had been committed in Huelva” and there were already two open legal proceedings in that city, it was referred to the courts of instruction of La Palma del Condado.

The issue of jurisdiction was later brought before the Supreme Court, which has yet to rule on the matter. However, Díaz explains, “if the court that has instructed recuses itself, the Spanish High Court could process preventive measures, such as taking statements or identifying people” until the Supreme Court decides.

A questionable labour inspector and a dubious civil guard

Another issue raised by the appeal against closing the case relating to these workers’ labour rights is the need to investigate the work carried out by a specific labour inspector. This inspector visited Doñana 1998 S.L. before the complaints were presented and another time after the case was prosecuted. Luján noted that the day workers reported the fact that they were neither given an employment contract nor were paid for hours workedto the Labour Inspectorate. The employers, for their part, did not provide proof of payment during the second inspection or in a subsequent visit for this specific purpose. Nor did they provide contracts. As of today, the lawyer points out, this supporting evidence has still not been made available to the court case. “The only thing they have provided is a document that is filled in but has no signature”, Luján says.

In fact, one of the inspection reports that is included in the case documentation states that “the company [during a second visit made after the complaint was filed] indicates that they do not have copies of the contracts because they made the mistake of not keeping supporting document, and that these workers have not been paid […] because they do not agree with the amounts. They want to be paid for the whole month and according to the company’s calculations they haven’t worked that long”.

The aforementioned report states that “it was not possible to verify” the claims of abuse and insults reported by the day workers, because when the inspector went to the farm to verify them, the workers had left the farm several days before, which the lawyer says is “nonsense” .

When the Labour Inspectorate was contacted by this newspaper, they used the Data Protection Law to not provide any information or statements. The investigating courts of La Palma del Condado do not want to comment on the case, the absence of evidence required by the prosecution or any of the aforementioned legal proceedings.

The prosecution also demands that the actions of the agent and chief of the El Rocío Civil Guard Post who described the aggressions reported by one of the day workers as “sexual innuendo” be investigated. As Badia Zekkari points out in the interview with the Moroccan media and according to Fátima, girls who were still working on the farm on 3 June, 2018 told her that the company had detained some workers and then “put them on buses back to their country so that they could not file a complaint against them”. The Civil Guard was, as corroborated by the statement, present when the expulsions were allegedly carried out. Their version of events is very different.

The Labour Inspection report in which it is stated that abuses cannot be verified, days after the seasonal workers had left.

In the Civil Guard’s statement 384/2018, which Público has reviewed, the agent in question mentions that the owners of the company informed them a group of seasonal workers were going to leave the farm that day because their contract had ended. According to this same document, the agents did not enter the farm and stayed outside so that no-one would feel “uncomfortable” or “intimidated”, although certain members of the body had informed them of at least one call stating that workers were being involuntarily held and public disorder.

In fact, it was one of the owners of the company who, later, went outside to talk to the agents stationed there, and mentioned “two of the workers whose contracts were expiring ran out the back of the farm [.. .] and their location is currently unknown”. Given these facts, in which the aforementioned agent was present, Luján wonders “How is it possible that the agents did nothing to identify the workers? Why did they not even verify their legal situation, such as whether they had valid work permits? Or ask to see their work contracts to make sure they were about to terminate?”. According to the lawyers of the day workers, what the Civil Guard did was “expel or, in the best of cases, collaborate in expelling, by intimidating the victims with their presence and inactivity in the face of the violent and unjustifiable acts that took place against people who had a valid work visa and an employment contract, in order to prevent them from reporting the owners”. “The ‘forced’ expulsion took place without an administrative or legal procedure”, they conclude. The Civil Guard have refused to comment on the matter.

Civil Guard statement declaring that they did not enter the farm so as not to intimidate or bother the people there, despite having been alerted to the fact that one worker was being involuntarily held.

That same day in the afternoon, after the reported events, various members of the Andalusian Workers’ Union (SAT) approached the farm. According to the labour unionist Diego Cañamero (who at that time was also a member of congress for Podemos at the time) the situation in which the workers found themselves was much more serious than what was described in the police reports contained in lawsuit 399/2018, which was also signed by the aforementioned chief.

This report states that Cañamero interviewed a group of seasonal workers – both short-term and long-term employees. And Cañamero himself specifies that “Lots of women came up to me to tell me how upset they were, that there was a lot of harassment, that they were not being paid, that one particular woman was ill and they had not wanted to take her to the doctor…” and “a very small minority” was, they repeated, over and over again, “good boss, good boss”.

The document also states that “the member of congress made a quick visual inspection of the facilities, and was apparently satisfied with what he saw, except for a few small issues which he said could be resolved by talking with the owners.” However, in a conversation with this newspaper, Cañamero described the facilities set up to house day workers as “containers in quite inhuman conditions, accommodation of the sort you know longer thought existed, adding that it looked like “a refugee camp”. In addition, the labour unionist and former member of congress, confirmed that the deficiencies that he saw were not problems that could be solved with a quick chat, that the issues were “structural”.

Manuel Matos, one of the owners of Doñana 1998, refused to speak to Público about what happened that day, or give any comments about the labour rights abuses of these workers and the many breaches of labour laws. Nor did they choose to give their version of the alleged cases of sexual harassment and assault that occurred on their property. The employer referred our request for information to the organisation Freshuelva – responsible for the strawberry employers’ association PR and communication – which has not responded to our requests for comments.

The statement by the Civil Guard compared to labour unionist Cañamero’s version

The other side of the Doñana 1998 case

In addition to the two legal proceedings opened in the investigating courts of La Palma del Condado and those related to the custody of their children in Morocco, the seasonal workers in the Doñana 1998 case have filed employment-related claims in the social courts of Huelva. Three of the 10 have been rejected and subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court of Andalusia. According to the lawyer for these cases, Díaz, they have given credibility to testimonies that they are part of “the criminal organisation”, such as the farm human resource manager, the same one who would not take Fátima to the hospital when she suffered from back pain unless she paid for the trip.

The lawyers Díaz and Luján assist the 10 day workers in all their ongoing legal cases in Spain for free, and they have given them unconditional support since they learned of their situation, as stated by the complainants. They have helped them to find a way to legally stay in Spain, and also to find accommodation while the cases run their course. “If they leave, everything is over, there is no case,” Luján notes. Fátima confirmed that the trials are the only reason she is still living in Spain. When everything is over, she remarks between hope and regret, “I will go back home to Morocco.”

Originally published in Público.

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