Circular migration and human rights in the Spanish strawberry fields

Blog28 Aug 2019

This blog is by Hannah Wilson and Aintzane Marquez from Women's Link Worldwide, an international nonprofit organization that uses the power of the law to promote social change that advances the human rights of women and girls, especially those facing multiple inequalities. Women's Link is representing four women migrant workers who suffered labour exploitation and sexual harassment while harvesting strawberries in Spain.

The temporary movement of migrant workers has become ever more topical over the past decade due to the steadily increasing number of people who migrate for seasonal work. This type of migration, where workers move between their home countries and host areas for short-term employment, is known as ‘circular migration’.

When managed correctly by States, non-permanent, circular migration can appear to bring a number of benefits for all parties: for countries of origin, it can relieve labour surpluses; for destination countries, it can provide the flexibility to quickly overcome labour shortages and increase economic production. For migrants, circular migration also appears to offer significant advantages, providing a chance to earn comparatively higher wages and gain work experience that may not be available in their home countries.

However, when implementing policies and processes for circular migration, the focus of both companies and States is too often on economic gain, with the human rights of migrant workers a secondary concern. The failure to implement agreements between sending and receiving countries about how workers’ human rights will be respected and protected only exacerbates the position of vulnerability that migrant workers are already in.

The case of the Moroccan women who are hired each year to assist with the harvesting of the strawberry crop in southern Spain is becoming emblematic of the exploitation of seasonal migrant workers. Despite the fact that the systematic exploitation of migrant workers there is said to have been going on for many years, it was not until 2018 that reports of exploitative labour conditions, physical abuse, sexual assaults and racism really came to the fore and highlighted the dire working and living conditions suffered by the migrant women employed in strawberry picking.

Abuse in the fields: the exploitation of seasonal berry pickers in Spain

Each year, under a bilateral agreement between Spain and Morocco, seasonal 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 selection criteria based on gender, in practice women are specifically sought for a number of reasons, not least because they are stereotypically thought to be more docile, more careful and more hard working than men. Another unofficial selection criterion is that the workers are the heads of their household and have young children. Many of the women recruited are divorced or widowed and, as their families remain in Morocco during the picking season, this measure effectively serves as a guarantee that they will return to their home country at the end of their contracts. As the vast majority of women selected come from rural areas where work is scarce, this opportunity appears to offer them the chance to escape from economic precarity and to present a chance for them to provide for their families.

When recruited, the women are told that they will be employed for three months with an initial trial period of 15 days, that they will be paid a base salary of 40 Euros per day and provided with suitable accommodation and transportation. Upon their arrival on Spanish shores, however, the women find the situation to be very different to that which they were promised. The fact that the women are in a position of vulnerability and in acute economic need is exploited by the harvesting companies to impose abusive conditions. Reports of companies imposing unattainable production targets on workers are widespread, as are reports of migrant workers either being banned from working for several days or losing their job for failing to keep up with the punishingly high targets. Workers have also stated that they were forced to work unpaid overtime, and that the price of the accommodation, which was supposed to be free, was deducted from their wages.

Many of the women have also reported facing situations of physical and sexual violence during their employment. They often report being sexually harassed during their employment, facing racist slurs or demands for sexual favours from managers, being physically and sexually assaulted and, in some cases, raped. If these workers speak out about the abusive conditions in which they are forced to live and work, not only do they risk losing their current job and the income on which their families depend, they also face losing the chance of re-employment in future seasons.

Women are beginning to speak out about the abuse, but government fails to listen

While reports of situations of such abuse are widespread, this issue has remained invisible for years due to the economic dependence of the region of Huelva on the revenue generated from strawberry production. However, last year, several brave women came forward to break the silence about the systematic abuse women seasonal migrant workers were suffering. Women’s Link Worldwide is currently representing four Moroccan women who were hired to work in the harvesting of the strawberry crop in 2018.

During their employment, they were forced to endure exploitative working conditions and suffered sexual harassment at the hands of one of the field managers. While their case is currently waiting to be considered by the Spanish employment tribunal, the criminal court has already decided that it will not continue investigating this case. Shockingly, it was held that the conditions described in the women’s witness statements, such as non-payment of wages, 10-hour working days and verbal and physical abuse, could not constitute labour exploitation. The court even went so far as to question whether a situation of labour exploitation could even exist, given that the women were working under a government-sanctioned bilateral visa agreement.

Migration schemes should not operate at the expense of workers’ basic rights

Bilateral visa agreements like the one between Spain and Morocco are prevalent throughout the world and, with the continued globalisation of the workforce, it is undoubtable that such schemes will continue to develop further. In the UK, the government has proposed temporary migration schemes similar to the Morocco-Spain arrangement as part of its post-Brexit immigration plans. On the surface, these schemes appear to offer substantial benefits to migrant workers: they provide an opportunity for workers to earn comparatively higher wages and gain access to the international labour market. Whether such schemes really offer migrant workers a fair deal, given the sporadic nature of the work offered and the fact that the majority of such schemes are administered by countries within the global north, is debatable. What cannot be denied is that regardless of how States choose to regulate the migration of seasonal workers, such schemes cannot be allowed to operate at the expense of workers’ basic human rights, as the current system between Spain and Morocco does. By focusing solely on maximising the economic output of the harvesting companies, the human rights of the women workers are entirely disregarded. As a consequence, abusive conditions are imposed with almost total impunity. It is vital that both States and companies are acutely aware of their role in protecting the rights of migrant workers and that they act to guarantee those rights and prevent situations of abuse from arising.