In Spain’s strawberry fields, migrant women face sexual abuse

It is mid-May and the hot air is filled with the sugary scent of strawberries mixed with fertiliser as Jadida*, a Moroccan woman, walks on the side of the road, a farm behind her. A large pair of sunglasses covers her face, almost entirely. Greenhouses surround her as far as the eye can see.

Jadida had told her colleagues she was going grocery shopping, so on the way back, she must pass by the shops, to avoid their suspicions, she says as she begins the interview.

Talking to the migrant workers who pick strawberries in Europe’s biggest red fruit producing region, the Huelva province in Spain, is not easy. The fields are fenced, and in many places there are surveillance cameras, guards and electric gates which close as soon as strangers approach.

But after these reporters handed out their phone numbers to a group of strawberry pickers in the area, inviting them to be interviewed, Jadida called back because she wanted to share her experiences of sexual abuse, allegedly by her supervisor.

At first, he was kind to her. But on her second day at work, he tried to persuade her to join him in his room. She refused, and he began calling her phone constantly. Eventually, he approached her when she was working in the fields and tried to pressure her into having sex with him.

Continuously rejecting him has had consequences. The supervisor now threatens to have her fired and sent back to Morocco.

“He tells the other bosses that I am lazy and not working. He gets me in trouble and accuses me of things that I haven’t done,” Jadida told Al Jazeera.

She is one of thousands of women – among them many Moroccans and Romanians – who each year spend three to six months picking strawberries, raspberries and blueberries underneath the “sea of plastic” of Huelva.Most workers recounted daily humiliations, such as penalties for taking toilet breaks, union busting and little or no protection against COVID-19. Several reported being subject to sexual harassment and blackmailed for sex.

According to Jadida, many of her colleagues do not dare to reject the supervisor.

The only other worker she knows who did so was frequently seen crying in the greenhouses and eventually moved to another part of the farm, Jadida claims.

“As soon as I get out of here, I want him arrested,” she says.

Strawberry pickers with temporary work visas have few opportunities to report harassment and abuse.

Most arrive as part of a bilateral “contracting in origin” agreement between Morocco and Spain which in 2019 alone, saw almost 20,000 Moroccan women pick Spanish strawberries.

According to the deal, migrants lose the opportunity to work in Spain if they leave their Spanish workplace for any reason.

Furthermore, it emphasises that the Moroccan state recruitment agency ANAPEC must ensure that migrant workers return to Morocco when the season ends. Scholars and NGOs say this is why ANAPEC demands that hopeful workers must show evidence that they have children under the age of 14 at home – so that they have something they must return to.

The women stay in small apartments – barracks and containers in between the greenhouses, far from any town centre.

Isolated and relying on temporary work visas, they are extremely dependent on their employers’ mercy, not only for security but also basic health standards, unions and local NGOs claim.

 

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