The shameful and systematic neglect of Spain’s migrant farm workers


In the greenhouses of southern Spain, thousands of undocumented migrants toil away in unsafe conditions to cultivate the fresh produce that lines the shelves of European supermarkets. Yet those who work to feed Europe have been forgotten about in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, forced to live and work in saturated and unsanitary conditions without even the most basic PPE. The exploitation of undocumented agricultural workers in Spain is nothing new. For the past two decades, they have been systematically failed by successive governments all too willing to turn a blind eye to the abuse they endure. Despite Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s recent promise of an investigation into the greenhouse conditions, much doubt remains over whether Spain will ever adequately protect its most neglected migrant community.

The forgotten ‘essential workers’

It is not for nothing that the province of Almería is nicknamed the mar de plástico, or ‘plastic sea.’ In this corner of Andalucía, vast swathes of plastic greenhouses stretch as far as the eye can see, visible even from space. Employing certain agricultural techniques, such as substituting polyethylene for glass and intensively using fertilisers, has allowed this once-arid region to produce much of Europe’s fruit and vegetables at a relatively low cost. By one estimate, the province of Almería alone produces annually about 3.5 million tons of fresh produce in more than 31,000 hectares of greenhouses. 

Yet there is a heavy human cost behind this apparent agricultural miracle. The low-cost and intensive cultivation of produce is dependent upon the labour of undocumented migrant workers, who are routinely exploited by their employers. The owners of these greenhouses take advantage of the migrants’ precarious legal status to deny them their rights as stipulated under Spanish law. The majority of migrant workers are vastly underpaid, forced to work long hours in extreme weather conditions and subject to verbal, physical and even sexual abuse. Hassan, a migrant worker from Morocco, told the Guardian that he earns about €5 a day, working from dawn to sunset in the oppressive Andalusian heat with only a 30-minute break. 

The chabolas, or slums, that surround the greenhouses are a striking visual testament to the inhumane conditions in which many workers are forced to live. There are around 92 slums in the province of Almería alone, housing between them 7,000 to 10,000 people. This makeshift accommodation, typically constructed from salvaged cardboard and scraps of leftover plastic from the greenhouses, lacks both electricity and running water.

It is therefore unsurprising that the physical and social effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have hit these embattled migrant communities especially hard. The health of the migrant workers of Almería was already threatened by the unsafe conditions in which they were forced to live and work. Diseases spread like wildfire through such tightly packed communities, and this is especially true in the case of a virus as contagious as COVID-19. 

In spite of the migrants’ heightened vulnerability to the effects of COVID-19, the Spanish government appeared to completely neglect agricultural workers in the first wave of the pandemic. When the country went into lockdown in March, the Spanish Army visited the greenhouses to instruct workers to stay put, even though running water was often several kilometres away. While national praise was heaped on the country’s ‘essential workers’ helping to keep the country running, the Spanish government conveniently forgot about the very agricultural workers responsible for feeding the population. The majority have not even received the most basic personal protective equipment (PPE) of masks and gloves, the protection that they should have been entitled to as essential workers. 

There was a wave of panic-buying across Europe as countries entered lockdown. The increased pressure on farm owners to meet this demand in turn increased pressure for agricultural workers. The workers who failed to meet the inflated quota of produce to be collected were forced to stay home without pay. Many of the migrants who work in the greenhouses came to Spain in order to support their families back home, making this deprivation of income an especially cruel punishment. At the height of the pandemic, many lost their jobs after testing positive for the virus followed by subsequent quarantining, without receiving any of the sick pay that they should have been entitled to as essential workers.

Spain’s migrant farmworkers played a crucial role in keeping the population fed and the economy going during an unprecedented time of crisis. Yet the Spanish government appears to have forgotten their very existence, doing little to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on both the physical and social health of these communities and, to some degree, facilitating their oppression. 

Where is the political will to act?

Spain’s neglect of its migrant workers during the pandemic was in many ways to be expected, as these communities have faced decades of marginalisation. The social landscape of Almería is characterised by stark divides, with little integration between the predominantly North African agricultural workers living in the chabolas and those inhabiting the towns. Although many migrants have earned enough to be able to pay rent, no one wants them as tenants.

It is twenty years since the race riots in El Ejido destabilised the image of Spain as a firmly pro-immigration country. In February 2000, this small town in Almería became the scene of racial violence unprecedented since the Franco years. The murder of a Spanish woman by a North African immigrant with a history of mental health problems sparked two days and two nights of reprisals against the migrant community at large. Shops ran by immigrants were looted, and property and mosques were burned. This violence against the migrant community was met with the passivity and even complicity of the police and municipal government.

Two decades later, the political establishment is just as unwilling to protect these communities. In April 2020, the UN Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Phillip Alston, visited Spain and was unequivocal in his condemnation of the systematic neglect of Spain’s poorest, especially during the time of a pandemic. He criticised the exploitation of migrant agricultural workers, stating that during his time in Huelva he visited migrant shanty towns with ‘far worse conditions than a refugee camp.’ Although he acknowledged in his final report the steps taken by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his PSOE government in response to the pandemic, such as the introduction of a national minimum income scheme, he expressed concern that any reforms would not go far enough. 

He may well be right. In spite of Sánchez’s promise to investigate the exploitation of migrant workers, the political will to enact change seems decidedly lacklustre. In the past month, the local government of Andalucía has allocated €1.1 million to improving the health and safety conditions of migrant workers, but critics say they are yet to see any improvement. 

In June, the left-wing junior party of Spain’s coalition government, Unidas Podemos, proposed the granting of citizenship to foreign workers who provided essential services during the coronavirus lockdownThis would grant legal status to over 600,000 undocumented migrants and asylum seekers who were in the country when the State of Alarm was declared on 14th March. It is a proposal in line with the announcement of the Italian government in May to grant legal status to some 250,000 migrants who work in the agricultural sector or who are employed in domestic service. Such an announcement would have been unthinkable in Italy in the months preceding the pandemic, when the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Matteo Salvini propelled his La Liga party to dizzying heights of popularity. Yet the self-pronounced socially liberal government of Sánchez has rejected outright the implementation of such a scheme in Spain. A spokesperson for the coalition government made it clear that the proposal of its junior partner was not up for debate. 

What next?

There are signs that the exploitation of agricultural migrant workers is only to get worse. The political will of the PSOE to reform migrant working conditions is lacking and the anti-immigration rhetoric in Spain is stronger than ever. Like much of the rest of Europe, Spain has become submerged in recent years by the rising tide of right-wing populism. In the November 2019 general election, the far-right Vox party claimed third place with 15% of the popular vote, doubling its seats from 24 to 52. As the court of public opinion seems to turn ever more decidedly against protecting migrant rights, it is high time that the government faces up to Spain’s violent past and present surrounding against migrant communities.

If Sánchez is serious about demonstrating the socialist credentials of his party, he must grant citizenship immediately to the exploited and essential migrant agricultural workers in Spain. He must also put an end to their horrific exploitation. Anything less would be an unforgivable betrayal.  

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