The strawberries of inequality

 In News

The business for this red fruit on both sides of the Atlantic, in Morocco and southern Spain cannot be explained without mention of border inequalities.Poverty, vulnerabilities and an expanding economic sector are what motivates Moroccan women to cross the strait to pick strawberries in Huelva.

The city of Larache, near the ancient Lixus, is a city beset by disorderly urban planning and the uneven presence of buildings, depending on which quarter you are in.In the coastal region, much more touristy, rises the Hotel España, across from Liberation Square (Spain Square before), legacy of the Spanish protectorate established during the second decade of the 20th century.The outskirtsare quite different, with unpaved roads and a rather shanty-town appearance, although the contrast with the province’s rural areas is even more pronounced.It is in these outskirts of the outskirts, in the settlements surrounding Larache and the Kenitra region where red-fruit production is concentrated and where the women are from who work picking strawberries in the fields of Huelva.

Hasnae, a false name we will use to keep her identity anonymous, works in the Larache office of a Spanish company.After warning El Temps that she would never risk her job to talk to us, she explains that working in the sector is a privilege, if you compare it to the working conditions in the textile industry or in domestic service. After working at the same company for 15 years, she has a position that frees her from the obligationof working in the fields from sunrise to sundown.Further, she adds, living in the countryside instead of in a city, which is her case, is an advantage if your goal is to be a seasonal migrant worker in Huelva.‘They don’t pick women from the city,’ she explains.

For practical purposes, there is nothing in writing on what makes a seasonal worker eligible.All the women to whom we had the opportunity to speak – a good dozen – were asked by the organisation in charge of hiring, the National Agency for the Promotion of Employment and Competencies (ANAPEC, its French acronym) to provide their children’s birth certificates to prove that they had minors under their care.That’s one way of making sure they will return.The majority are from rural areas, are illiterate and only speak Darija, colloquial Moroccan Arabic.Previous experience picking strawberries is not even a requisite in all cases.All of these conditions make them much more vulnerable in the fields of southern Andalusia.However, exposure to abuses is not a risk exclusive to workers crossing the strait.

The Moroccan reality: same complaints of mistreatment for less money

Oumaima is the pseudonym we will use for this woman, some 40 years old, divorced and with a 16-year-old son who lives in a town near Kenitra.This year she tried her luck, along with nearly another 50 women, to go work in Huelva: they asked her for her ID card, a divorce certificate and 100 dirhams for processing costs, about nine euros.A cost she shouldn’t have paid and that could point to the corruption of the local civil servant.In the end, she wasn’t picked, claiming that they had decided to hire all the women who had been selected the previous year.Something that – as El Tempsverified – was not the case for at least one company.It couldn’t have used lack of experience as the excuse: Oumaima has worked in the fields since she was 14, before the legal age was established and increased to 15 and then 18 for dangerous jobs.She has worked at four companies since that time, with a break while she was married and until she separated in 2007, and she has 15 years of accrued experience.

In what is known as the Barcelona Process, started in 1995, a commitment was signed with a timeline of 2010 of establishing a free trade area between the European Union (EU) and several non-EU countries on the Mediterranean, which included Morocco.Negotiations for agricultural trade liberalisation with the Alaouite monarchy started in February 2006 and stretched out until December 2009. During these years, the Moroccan governmentstarted up what was baptised the ‘Green Morocco Plan’, a programme whose aim was to attract foreign investment and that, among other features, outlined the transfer of public lands to private ownership.Moroccan individuals and enterprises remained as the property owners and controlled the running of a good part of daily operations, but foreign capital companies, Spanish, but also American, Dutch and even Mexican, were in charge (and are in charge) of everything related with exportation to international markets.It was also in these years when they changed from growing oranges to cultivating strawberries, the latter an extremely important business today in the provinces of Larache and Kenitra that gives work to a highly-significant number of women in the region.

Ayachi Kazali, a veteran union member in Larache from the most important trade union confederation in Morocco – the Moroccan Workers’ Union (UMT) – puts in his twopence for El Temps about the situation of women working in the Moroccan fields.The foremost and main problem, according to Kazali, is business owners’ firm opposition to freedom of association.‘Without any possibility of organising,’ claims the union member, ‘the strawberry workers are exposed to unpaid overtime, insults, sexual harassment, banned from going to the toilet and having to wait a long time for the transport to come that takes them home after the workday is over’.A problem, mobility, whose reach extends far beyond only the agriculture sector: drivers tend to overload the vehicles, which are often livestock transport, in order to make more cash, with accidents ending up being as common as they are fatal.Despite improvements in recent years, this situation continues to represent a very serious danger for the lives of field labourers.And all of that for 73 dirhams a day, equivalent to less than seven euros per day worked.

Khadija Zighighi, president of the association Shaml, whose work includes training and providing support for female farm workers in the province of Kenitra, goes even further than Kazali.She states that, while the programme lasted, they had to help women who got pregnant after their bosses at the company sexually abused them, leading to rejection from their families.Shaml acts as a mediator with their families so that they don’t kick them out.A situation worsened by the fact that there are young girls in the fields between 12 and 14 years old, but also widowers and married women, the immense majority illiterate.The possibility of whistleblowing is extremely remote:‘Lawyer fees can skyrocket to an amount between 3000 and 5000 dirhams, and the majority of legal aid lawyers are not up for it,’ claims Zighighi.These women’s defencelessness is absolute.

Borders of inequality

Oumaima explains that this is the only possible life for her:‘I am illiterate and I don’t have money to be able to consider a project.There is nothing to do in my town’.She gets up every day at four in the morning and leaves the house at 5.30, reaching work at 6.30 am, eats breakfast in 20 minutes and starts working at seven.They bring her to work in a truck she shares with between 25 to 40 people, depending on the day, less if there are women who cannot keep up the pace and demands of the job.She was paid 60 dirhams a day the first year – about five and a half euros – which has now increased to 70 dirhams per day.She says that her boss treats her quite well, compared to what she hears about other farms, and says she has never suffered abuse beyond pressures to be more productive.She says the work is hard and if they are tired or ill, they have to go home and are not paid:‘Last week I only worked two days and they didn’t pay me for the other days.That’s how things operate here.

For all those reasons, the promise of a seasonal job in Huelva, where in theory they pay 40 euros a day, is a lifeline for many of these women.With this money they can help their families and build a basic home, for example.

Dikra, a pseudonym for a woman who went to the selection process for working in the Andalusian fields, has been divorced from her ex-husband for many years.‘My siblings went their own way and I have to take care of my parents, who are very old and ill, as well as my young children.If anything happened to my family, I wouldn’t have the money to buy medicine,’ she explains, distressed.She doesn’t understand why they called her colleagues and not her: in Morocco she works all day for about six euros, while in Huelva that is what she would earn in one hour.When asked if she has heard about the abuses that some Moroccan women crossing the Atlantic are subjected to, she doesn’t hesitate: there is suffering here, and the only way out is to go there, to work in Spain.Oumaima, like Hasnae and Dikra, maintain that they only hear about the good experiences of day labourers in Huelva.‘The situation is more or less the same here as there,’ claims union member Ayachi Kazali, ‘but at least they are paid more in Huelva’.

Researcher Íñigo Moré, author of the book The Borders of Inequality (University of Arizona Press), points out that the border between Morocco and Spain is actually the border with all of Africa.The Spanish economy – according to GDP records – has had at different times an identical volume to that of the entire African continent.That means that the value of goods and services produced by over 1000 million Africans each year has been equal or less to that produced by 40 million Spaniards.To Moré, that explains why the canoes and dinghies set off in their day, explains migration and ‘of course’ he states, explains the current labour situation in the sector.‘Spain is the last country before Africa, and what you’ve got here is a quite structured expression of this inequality,’ concludes the economist.

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 El Temps

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