Surviving the strawberry fields
Drissiya, a former Moroccan day worker, suffered a stroke while working in Huelva. When she was discharged from hospital, she was returned to Morocco. Neither the company, nor the health services that attended her will comment on the case
Drissiya attends the interview despite the visible consequences of the stroke that she suffered in 2019. She cannot walk without help and words do not come easily to her. When she becomes overwhelmed, her husband takes her by the hand and continues her narrative of the events that led them to tell their story, one of the most serious that has occurred in the strawberry fields of Huelva. But hers is not the only one: other Moroccan day workers have also recounted stories of abuse, mistreatment, exploitation, injustice or negligence by the owners or managers of the recruitment companies, all dedicated to the production of berries.
In 2018, 10 women filed a complaint against Doñana 1998 S.L. for non-payment, poor working conditions, abuse and sexual assaults. Another similar case is being heard about certain events that occurred last year in another company in Moguer, Huelva. But the news related to the labour rights abuses of these workers have been published in the media since the early 2000s.
Like Drissiya, many of these women, who were contracted overseas, report the pressure that is put on them to work harder and to pick increasingly more strawberries, raspberries, blueberries or blackberries every day. “While we were working, they would yell at us and insult us so that we work harder. If they think you are not working as hard as you can, they force you to stop and you can’t return to the field until the next day”, says the 39-year-old former worker, during the interview in a room provided by an NGO, in the north of Morocco. When this happens, the workers lose one day’s salary, a punishment no-one can afford. “Working on that farm is very dangerous, they squeeze you as much as they can” says Hamid, the name we will use to refer to Drissiya’s former co-worker who has agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. “If they find out that you have told your side of the story here, you won’t be able to find work” he said.
“While we were working, they would yell at us and insult us so that we work harder”
What we have to understand, explains José Antonio Brazo Regalado, representative of the Andalusian Workers’ Union (SAT) in Huelva, is that “these Moroccan women are here because they are poor and if they work in Huelva for three or four months they can save enough money to feed their children and their family for a year. The situation for someone in Spain is completely the opposite because the lowest paid sector in Spain is the agricultural sector in Huelva, according to its collective agreement. There are fewer and fewer people from Spain who work in the strawberry fields, the union member points out, but despite this berries continue to be the agricultural engine of the area which is why they hire women from Morocco: “they put up with almost anything.” Most of them are illiterate, come from rural backgrounds, and in order to get this temporary job through the recruitment company in their country, sponsored by the Spanish Government, they have to have minor children in their care, something that is not recorded in any official document.
“They want to make ensure the women will return home after the season, but they use absolutely discriminatory selection criteria,” explains Belén Luján, a lawyer for the temporary workers who filed a lawsuit against the company Doñana 1998. The Moroccan National Agency for the Promotion of Employment and Competition (ANAPEC) is the body in charge of this selection.
Drissiya had worked as a seasonal worker in Huelva since 2009, but on the morning of April 7, 2019, in the middle of the picking season, she was unable to get out of bed. Her body did not respond, and she was unable to utter a single word. The day before, just after the end of the workday, she returned to the work shed that SAT Algaida Productores, the company for which she had worked for four seasons, had set up for her and five other co-workers (and which was located approximately 150 meters away the strawberry field). She showered, had dinner, and then went to sleep. “I didn’t feel any pain or anything out of the ordinary before going to bed”, she says.
Despite the seriousness of her condition no company employee took her to the doctor. “They told the manijera [farm human resource manager] that she was ill and could not move” but he replied that she was fine, that she was simply tired and not eating properly,” explains Hamid. Later, he adds, “the senior manager came in and told Drissiya that she had two choices: a yoghurt and back to work or the hospital”. But she did not answer, she could not speak, she could only move her left hand and her head”.
They told the manijera that she could not get up, that she was sick, but he replied she was fine
Hamid states that it was not until hours later that they finally took her to the Almonte health centre, where, according to Drissiya, they gave her sleeping pills and sent her back to the farm. Her version coincides with the testimony of some of her co-workers who, two days later, after consulting the same medical centre again, accompanied her to the Infanta Elena hospital in Huelva, taken by one of the company’s drivers. This information appears in the hospital medical discharge report dated 13 days after her admission. Despite various calls and emails to Algaida Productores, official sources from the Almonte Medical Centre, and the doctor who treated her at the hospital, the authors of this report have not been able to speak to anyone involved about the events.
Anna Aymamí, a primary care specialist and neurologist, believes that it could be a case of serious medical negligence. “If the patient had been treated after the onset of symptoms, she might have undergone fibrinolytic therapy, which could have decreased the lasting effects of the stroke”, she laments. In fact, she continues, that’s what the Stroke Code, is for “An emergency response procedure that health and primary services must be familiar with as it establishes whether patients need to be transferred to a referral hospital and whether this treatment can be applied”. However, says the specialist, to establish responsibilities you have to know what exactly happened in the medical centre, what diagnosis was made and be certain that there was no referral.
Abilio Caetano Luna, one of the emergency doctors at the Almonte health centre, says: “A stroke is priority 1 and a patient who has had one is taken to hospital. If they need fibrinolytic therapy, it has to be done at the hospital, we don’t have authorisation to apply this treatment”. Regarding Drissiya, the doctor says he is not aware of her particular case.
The stroke suffered by the interviewee is associated with a valvular disease the day worker had, for which she was taking medication, Aymamí confirmed after having studied Drissiya’s medical documentation. She had already fainted once in 2017 on that same farm while working for that company and on occasions referred to a heart condition. Despite all this, her heart still functioned well. Both this doctor and other medical sources consulted confirmed that her valve disease could be the product of a rheumatic fever that Drissiya might have suffered during childhood or adolescence.
The two episodes, occurring in 2017 and 2019, could be related, says José Luis Rojas, a doctor specialising in occupational medicine and who has worked for eight years in the berry sector. “The key question is whether the company carried out corresponding occupational medical examination before starting work. If they did not, I believe that the case is legally questionable. Because this worker [who was known to have at least a heart condition] should not be carrying loads or performing physically demanding tasks”, adds Rojas.
The chain of alleged negligence and inadequate and partial interventions that led to such a dramatic situation does not end there. After 13 days in hospital, nobody informed her of her rights, despite the many organisations involved: PRELSI; the Strawberry and Berries of Andalusia Ethical, Labour and Social Responsibility Plan Interprofessional Association (Interfresa), and the Women in Conflict Zone (MZC) organisation, who also carried out intermediation tasks between the company and the seasonal workers.
Drissiya and her husband were asked whether anyone spoke to them about the possibility of extending her sick leave, registering for a permanent disability or filing a lawsuit against the company for civil liability, but they had not been. Both PRELSI, which received a subsidy of 70,000 euros from the Regional Council of Andalusia, the General Directorate for the Coordination of Migration Policies, and MZC, hired by this same general directorate, were created after the of the Doñana case scandals.
The couple cannot pay for their children’s schooling because of the former seasonal worker’s condition
Mar Ahumada, head of the aforementioned general directorate, confirms that their consultants are responsible for providing labour rights information to the workers, which they say they do on the buses that the companies make available to workers in Algeciras to take to the farms. Neither Drissiya nor any of the other women we interviewed for this article recalled having received that information. Ahumada believes that, although PRELSI consultants are interested parties, the work they do is a substantial step forward.
In any case, according to the social worker of the Infanta Elena de Huelva Hospital, these consultants did in fact mediate in Drissiya’s case, but there was still a lack of information regarding the options that she and her husband had to address their delicate family situation. The couple cannot pay for their children’s schooling because of Drissiya’s condition. “School clothes, books, everything needs to be paid for, and Drissiya can no longer work,” he laments.
Drissiya and her husband say no-one told them about their rights
For her part, Ana Martín, coordinator of the trafficking department in MZC in Spain, confirms that her intervention with Drissiya took place in the context of support and translations for health care. “We accompanied her in the hospital during the time she was admitted, we visited her daily and, once she was discharged, her employer sent her the company van driven by one of its employees to take her to Tarifa. We accompanied her throughout the journey, and on the ferry, back to Tangier”, she explains. Once in Tangier, a colleague from MZC Morocco accompanied Drissiya and her husband home.
After being discharged from hospital, returning to Morocco was her only option. Aziz – who picks up seasonal workers when they arrive in Algeciras and drives them to Huelva, explains the husband – called the company and asked what they wanted to do. “I asked whether there was anyone who could take care of her in Huelva and was told that there wasn’t. So, I told suggested returning her to Morocco”.
The couple cannot pay for their children’s schooling because of the former seasonal worker’s condition. Drissiya and her husband (image) confirm that no-one informed them of their rights after she suffered a stroke.
We were unable to determine whether this person, of Moroccan origin, worked for PRELSI, for Interfresa with specific functions or for a specific company. It was also Aziz himself, who bore the burden of mediating with her husband when Drissiya was hospitalised, and who called him days later to ask him to make a video saying that the company had taken good care of his wife. He refused and they have not been contacted by the company again.
Algaida Productores did not bother contacting her either. “The company asked us, her co-workers, to contribute money to send to Morocco”, says Hamid. We received approximately 1,000 euros from the workers, Drissiya’s husband confirms. At the end of last year, ANAPEC called us, the Moroccan body in charge of selecting seasonal workers each year, to offer Drissiya another season of work in Huelva. “They didn’t even know what had happened.”
“The company asked us, her co-workers, to contribute money to send to Morocco”
During an interview, Ahumada, who acknowledged that MZC informed him about Drissiya’s story, stated that he though the events should be investigated. Asked later if the general directorate or another consultant might clarify the facts, he did not respond.
The government sub-delegation, jointly responsible with the Moroccan authorities for the management of hiring at source, and which authorises the entry of some 19,000 day workers every year, did not agree to meet with the authors of this article. Neither did Interfresa nor Freshuelva, another professional group in the sector that only operates in the province of Huelva.
This publication has been made possible thanks to the financial contribution of the European Union. The content of this document is the sole responsibility of Surt Foundation and it does not necessarily reflect the position of the European Union. David Messeguer has participated in the preparation of this article.