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14 Jun 2021

Spotlight: Women Migrant Workers in Spain’s Berry Industry

Copyright: Laura Martínez Valero, Women’s Link Worldwide

I don’t want this to happen again next year, to us or to any other women who come next year
Testimony from a woman working in a berry farm in Huelva, Spain.

Across Europe, including Germany, Netherlands, and Sweden, migrant workers face systemic exploitation and abuses. A recent report by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom Spain puts a spotlight on the harsh realities facing migrant women working in berry farms in Andalusia, Spain where the industry is highly feminized and discrimination based on gender, migrant status and class conspires to disenfranchise women workers. This multiple and intersecting discrimination makes them vulnerable to human rights violations and worsening conditions during the covid-19 pandemic. As the harvest season ends, we highlight their lived realities to urge for structural reform.

Understanding the Context: Multiple Forms of Discrimination

For two decades, under a bilateral agreement between Spain and Morocco, women workers are hired in Morocco and brought to Spain for seasonal work in the harvesting of berries and soft fruits in the region of Huelva, Andalusia. While the agreement does not specify any selection criteria based on gender, in practice, women are specifically sought for a few reasons including the stereotyped vision of them as being more docile, more careful, and more hard-working than men. Another unofficial selection criterion is that women recruited are divorced or widowed and have young children. Since most women come from rural areas where work is scarce, this job opportunity actually offers them the opportunity to provide for their families. In this way, this scheme preys on the heightened economic precarity these women are in. During their employment, companies impose abusive conditions of labour, including unpaid overtime; and they impose unattainable production targets and if workers fail to reach these, they face sanctions which include being fired.

In 2020, the UN Independent Experts spoke out about this situation. The discriminatory recruiting system, together with the exploitative working conditions that women are forced to endure, the isolated housing facilities they are made to live in, the restrictions to their freedom of collectively organising, and the control exerted over them by their employers make it no surprise that they face significant risks of suffering human rights abuses including gender-based violence.

The Different Work Contracts

When recruited, women are promised some conditions that don’t reflect the reality they will find on arrival in Spain. The contracts signed in Morocco are written in Spanish or French, languages which most women do not speak or read. In 2020, these initial contracts included the guarantee of continued activity during the period of validity of the visa granted which is normally until the end of July. The contract also promises accommodation, decent pay, and regular working hours. In most cases, women are not even provided with a copy of the signed contract although it specifically states that five copies are signed by each of the parties involved. Upon their arrival in Spain, they sign a different temporary contract for specified work and services which includes an initial trial period of 15 days and allows the companies to terminate when they consider that the season ends regardless of the visa scheme. For the women to be able to denounce the companies, authorities or individuals that are not respecting their working conditions or other rights, they must know about their rights and have access to trade unions and independent mechanisms, which is not the case. In addition, the fact that they do not have a copy of the contract that they signed in Morocco prevents them from having Spanish labour laws and standards applied to it.

Copyright: Laura Martínez Valero, Women’s Link Worldwide

Barriers to Accessing Justice

Access to justice is extremely challenging for women migrants working in the berry farms. Several intersecting factors are at play that significantly limit the ability of these migrant workers to speak out about the abuses that they experience. Many do not have information about their rights, and/or do not dare to report the situation because they need the income, and they are afraid of losing the chance of re-employment in future seasons.

The women workers are not only physically isolated (in that they are accommodated on the farmland) but are also socially isolated, in that they cannot speak the local language and have limited contact with local people. These practicalities significantly limit their access to the scarce support available.

Breaking the Silence using the Legal System

Despite the risks involved, several brave women came forward in 2018 to break the silence about the systematic abuse they were suffering and put their faith in the legal system to remedy the harm.

Women’s Link Worldwide is currently representing four women who were forced to endure exploitative working conditions and suffered sexual harassment at the hands of one of the field managers during that season. In February 2021, the court dismissed their case and upheld the company’s argument that the workers’ termination was lawful because the season had ended when they got fired. The Court did not look into any other labour rights violations that had been alleged and focused solely on the legality of the dismissal. The criminal case regarding the sexual harassment will be heard in October 2021.

As workers and labour movements continue to press governments and companies to improve the conditions for women working in the berry farms, they offer clear recommendations:

There should be more labour inspections in the area and independent organizations should be allowed inside the farms to provide information and support to the workers. There is an acute need for profound agriculture reform to improve the incomes and conditions of all the agriculture workers and to regularize the situation of many migrant workers... Once we are all in equal and fair conditions, abusive situations will be less common
Ana Pinto from Jornaleras en Lucha, a local and independent activist organization.