There are more than 3,000 Moroccan women who come to Spain each year to pick strawberries | Photo: Imago / Agencia EFE / Julian Perez
There are more than 3,000 Moroccan women who come to Spain each year to pick strawberries | Photo: Imago / Agencia EFE / Julian Perez

A UN special rapporteur has called out the "shocking abuse" of migrants picking strawberries in Spain. The migrants are mainly Moroccan women, who come in on seasonal visas to carry out the work. Their treatment has long been criticized by human rights groups working in the field of migrant rights.

"When they told me I was coming to Spain, I was so happy..." says one Moroccan woman in a film made by the Women's Link human rights group, which has been documenting the treatment of strawberry pickers in Spain for several years. 

"But I didn't find what I was looking for. All I found was shouting, exploitation and trouble," the woman, who testified anonymously, added, with her hands resting in her lap.

Although the film was made in 2018, an open letter sent by the Women's Link group, along with several other human rights groups, to the UN at the beginning of June this year says that many of the conditions already highlighted have remained the same, or even got worse, under the restrictions placed on the workers by the COVID-19 pandemic.

About 3,000 Moroccan women travel to Spain each year, reports the North African Post. It says that the women are often forced to work in excess of Spain's legal working hours and are paid less than the minimum wage or "not paid at all."

The letter, here tweeted in Spanish on the Women's Link Twitter account, calls on UN bodies to "act quickly," saying that the pandemic is "exacerbating these conditions and may lead to new violations." 

Now the UN Special Rapporteur on poverty and human rights, Olivier De Schutter has responded, calling on Spain to "urgently protect thousands brought over from Morocco as essential workers in order to pick strawberries," reports the Thomson Reuters foundation. "These workers have deliberately been put at risk during the pandemic," De Schutter said in a statement to the Thomson Reuters foundation.

De Schutter added that the workers lived under "poor housing conditions, (in) overcrowded settlements, (with) poor access to water and sanitation, ... no ventilation of work spaces, … absence of cleaning of any surfaces or objects.

"This is the most shocking," he said. 

'Forced labor'

The situation amounts to "forced labor," De Schutter told Thomson Reuters. He said the women were essentially coerced into working in conditions which "violated international human rights standards and domestic laws."

The ministry of labor and social economy in Spain has already responded. They say that they are in the middle of "inspecting working conditions of migrant workers in Spain," according to Thomson Reuters. It said "the inspectorate applies the regulation for the protection of workers' rights with the forcefulness that the situation requires in each case."

Women from Morocco have been coming to pick strawberries and other fruit in Spain since 2001 when the two countries signed an agreement granting women temporary visas to harvest fruit. Many of the women were promised higher wages than they actually received on arrival, and much higher than anything they could earn in their own country.

Last year, however, with the help of the Women’s Link organization and other human rights groups, ten women filed a court case claiming they had been "trafficked, assaulted and exploited," according to Thomson Reuters.

 The case has "yet to reach a verdict," the agency said.

'A widespread phenomenon'

It would appear the women who pick strawberries in Huelva are just the tip of the iceberg, noted De Schutter. He said the strawberry pickers were just "one example of a widespread phenomenon in Spain." De Schutter also pointed the finger at the Moroccan government for not doing more to "diligently ensure that the workers' rights are met."

De Schutter said that much of the fruit and vegetable produce we eat in the EU comes from the fields of Spain. "It really is the garden of Europe," he said. "And yet a large proportion of our fruit and vegetables is picked by workers living in these substandard conditions."

De Schutter pointed out that because many of the Moroccan women couldn't speak Spanish they were particularly "vulnerable to being exploited."

In the video, many of the women speak about leaving their children at home and taking the job in order to provide enough money for their families to live happily. 

"We came here from Morocco without any information," explains one woman. Another says they hadn't realized that they would be paid "per kilo." Several of the women talk about the pressure to pick more and faster every day.

'Sexual violence'

When women got sick and "passed out" the farm managers "didn’t want to take her to the hospital, only to the house," testifies one woman.

"I got sick several times, and nobody does anything," says another. Still others mention harassment, often in veiled terms. They talk of having "seen it with my own eyes." They mention friends or "other women" who were approached by "a man" or men "coming to their rooms." 

One woman says that she saw a woman being asked to sit on a man’s lap. What happende afterwards is not detailed.A screenshot of some of the women who testified in the Women's Link video in 2018 about mistreatment in the strawberry fields of Spain | Photo: Screenshot Women's Link video"He left the workers and he came to our rooms," said another, not saying exactly what went on. 

Human Rights groups though say some women are exposed to "sexual violence." They have called on the UN bodies to include a "gender perspective" in any proposed new measures to tackle these abuses because they note that the fruit picking industry is "highly feminized."

As well as sexual violence, they say women are often forced to live in accommodation which "violates housing conditions," have "no access to justice, healthcare or sexual and reproductive rights."

Women's Link and its partners say that the measures introduced to tackle the situation in 2018 do not go far enough, since it "mostly places the onus of reporting abuses on the workers, most of whom are unaware of their rights or may fear losing their jobs." They say Spain needs to appoint government monitors for the situation, instead of leaving the oversight to "strawberry industry managers and owners."

With material from Thomson Reuters foundation


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