‘If you report abuse, you lose your job’: Spain’s labourers fight back
Fed up with exploitation and sexual assault, women farm workers in Spain are campaigning to make their collective voice heard
For Ana Pinto, an agricultural worker in Andalucía in southern Spain, the turning point came when she challenged her employer’s strict clothing rules, which insisted workers cover up. “We were forbidden from wearing [only] tops and shorts, while working in a greenhouse at 50ºC,” she said.
“I kept wearing them and one day the manager told me that I must change my clothes or he would throw me out. I told him to fire me. My co-workers heard us arguing and they all stood up for me. They said, ‘If Ana doesn't work, neither will we.’”
Since the confrontation, in 2018, Pinto has become the face of Jornaleras en Lucha, a campaign group formed by women who work in the fields of Huelva. This province in the south-west corner of Andalucía, on the border with Portugal, is a major producer of strawberries and other fruit. Most of the workers employed to pick the fruit are women, because it’s considered a 'delicate' job.
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The group (which was formally established in 2020) investigates reports of exploitation and abuse, so that it can collectively challenge employers and, if necessary, take them to court. Pinto said that they have been able to pressure employers to provide sick leave and back pay, thanks in part to media coverage of the group’s actions. They have also formed a trade union with other women’s rights groups in Spain, such as Las Kellys, an association of hotel cleaners.
Rape and exploitation
The fight began in earnest three years ago, after women farm workers in Huelva reported several cases of rape – allegations that were later investigated by BuzzFeed and the German magazine Correctiv. “After that, you can’t look the other way,” said Pinto, who met some of the women involved.
Four day labourers, who accused a foreman of sexual abuse and exploitation in 2018, are still waiting for a court decision on their case. Their former employer has not hired them again since their complaints. “This sends a very serious message,” said Aintzane Márquez, a senior lawyer at Women’s Link, an international women’s rights organisation that is providing legal representation for the four women. “If you report [abuse], you lose your job.”
The investigation by BuzzFeed and Correctiv, which was widely discussed in the Spanish media, helped shine a spotlight on abuse in Huelva’s strawberry fields. Day labourers say that employers breach collective bargaining agreements, and that workers are subject to verbal abuse and harmful conditions, such as extreme competitiveness.
“The first thing they explain to us are the rules, and that if you are marked on the ‘list’, you can say goodbye,” said Pinto. The ‘list’ is a daily record, in kilos, of the amount of produce each worker has picked. Each day, supervisors point out the names of the people who have picked the least, who may then be fired on the spot. Pinto says this is legal because the workers are hired on a temporary basis.
“Fellowship has disappeared,” said Pinto. Nobody wants to come bottom of the list.
Wages vary between employers, but, according to Pinto, they often do not reach the legal minimum wage of €950 per month. One reason is that day labourers are not paid for overtime or holidays; they should be, but because they are on temporary contracts, employers can threaten them if they complain. Pinto said that one aim of Jornaleras en Lucha is to help women raise their concerns collectively, so that individuals don’t get punished for speaking out.
Migrant workers and racism
Conditions are even worse for women who are hired en origen – in their country of origin. These are seasonal migrant workers, who come mainly from Morocco. These women are usually illiterate and have dependent children, which means they will return to Morocco once their employment finishes. Their conditions are regulated by the Gecco Order, which says that employers must provide accommodation and access to healthcare.
Pinto said that some of her migrant colleagues received lower hourly rates than Spanish workers, were charged up to €300 for health insurance and that their accommodation did not meet health and safety standards.
Conditions are even worse for seasonal migrant workers, mainly women from Morocco
One colleague, who ended up dying from cancer, was abandoned by both her employer and the Spanish state, neither of whom provided housing while she was undergoing medical treatment. "When she returned to the farm after two months in the hospital, she saw that her things had been thrown out," Pinto said.
According to Pinto, employers hire women en origen because they’re easier to exploit. “Employers complain of a lack of Spanish workers and use that excuse for hiring women in Morocco, but that’s not true,” she said. “There are many hands willing to work in the fields, but they prefer to hire more vulnerable people who won’t protest if they are paid less.”
The data backs her up. Huelva had the highest unemployment rate in Spain in the last four months of 2020: 27% – almost double the national average. Agriculture is the region’s main economic activity, with berries accounting for more than €1bn in exports last year, mostly to elsewhere in Europe. More than half of the women hired from other countries to work in Andalusian agriculture went to Huelva.
For Pinto, this scenario is the perfect breeding ground for racism. “After you don’t get the job, you turn on the TV and you watch Santiago Abascal [leader of the far-Right party Vox] saying that the immigrants come here to take our jobs,” she said. Vox is now Spain’s third-largest party
A pantomime scheme
InterFresa, the Andalusian association of berry producers, has created a voluntary ethics plan for employers, known as PRELSI, which includes a system for monitoring standards in migrant workers’ accommodation. Pinto, however, dismisses it as a “pantomime”, since the scheme is managed by the same companies that violate labour rights.
For instance, after inspecting accommodation at the beginning of this year to see if it was ready to house migrant workers a few months later, from March, PRELSI reported that only 5% failed to meet proper standards. That figure suggests a far higher rate of compliance than last year’s inspections by the Ministry of Labour, which issued sanctions to seven out of ten berry companies for labour irregularities, according to local newspaper La Mar de Onuba.
On 29 June, the Minister of Labour, Yolanda Díaz, met with the Jornaleras and promised to intensify labour inspections and investigate abuses reported by workers. Pinto, who participated in the meeting, said that she is quite satisfied with this.
Jornaleras en Lucha is trying to build popular support and has set up a crowdfunding campaign to provide salaries for two full-time employees. In February, the musicians Clara Peya and Ana Tijoux, in collaboration with the actor Alba Flores (known internationally for her role in the Netflix series ‘Money Heist’), released a song and accompanying music video to raise funds for the organisation. The lyrics of ‘Mujer Frontera’ are about all women who suffer, but they are inspired by the Jornaleras.
Flores said to openDemocracy: “They are women who are weaving their own networks of help and resistance, and we have much to learn from that.”
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