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Europe's vegetable garden is ridden with poverty, plastic and contradiction

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By Heather Galloway
Ayoub's residence in Andalusia
Ayoub's residence in Andalusia   -   Copyright  Credit: Heather Galloway
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Spain's southern region of Andalusia attracts two very different kinds of foreigners: those that flock to its beautiful beaches every year and the growing army of migrants that harvest fruit and vegetables in what has been coined as Europe's back garden.

It's an unfortunate term: while holidaymakers stay at expensive apartments, thousands of fruit pickers reside in poverty-stricken, plastic shantytowns.

“Many people come and tell us they are going to save us," says Ayoub, 20, an illegal Moroccan immigrant living in a shantytown in the Almeria district of Nijar. "They take our picture, but nothing changes. Nothing’s ever going to change.”

Easy on the eye, Ayoub has been here since he was 17. He has the equivalent of the first year of the Spanish baccalaureate and tried to continue his education in the nearby town of San Isidro, but found there was a waiting list of 200.

The only thing that has changed for him since he arrived is that half the shantytown where he has made his home was burned to the ground in an alleged act of revenge.

“This place used to be full of drugs and whore houses,” Ayoub explains, pointing to the area once occupied by 60 other shacks, and now fenced off and dug up into unsightly mounds by the landowner to avoid a resurgence.

What is left is an estimated 600 immigrants inhabiting the remaining hovels where the dust alleys are strewn with garbage, the toilet is a dried-up riverbed and electricity is stolen from the lines overhead. The few families and children that were there have gone.

Now it’s just young and middle-aged men, many from Morocco and Mali. Like them, Ayoub works in the plastic greenhouses that sprawl for miles inland, away from the glittering Mediterranean and the Cabo de Gata natural park where European tourists enjoy long noisy lunches, blissfully unaware of the harsh reality behind their salad bowls.

Credit: Molly McGovern
Plastic -- thought to be from the greenhouses -- dumped on the way to the sea.Credit: Molly McGovern

Shantytowns juxtapose with holiday villas

The coastline in this province of Andalusia where a family apartment costs upwards of €250 a night in the high season has long been a magnet for the French and British holidaymakers as well as for Spaniards.

But while the numbers of vacationing foreigners have dwindled due to COVID travel restrictions this year, the numbers seeking work have soared as the economic situation in Africa grows ever direr.

According to Spain's interior ministry, migrant arrivals by sea alone amount to 15,317, an increase of 56.4% compared with 2020.

At the start of July, more than 800 came ashore in the resorts of San José, Villaricos, Cabo de Gata and Carboneras.

Like the tourists, they come in summer when the weather is better, only they head in opposite directions.

While the tourists tan themselves by the Mediterranean, the migrants make their way into the Sierra de Cabo de Gata to the plastic sea where the majority will be absorbed into the growing army of workers who spray and harvest Europe’s fruit and vegetables.

Credit: Molly McGovern
The coastline at Cabo de GataCredit: Molly McGovern

According to the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty, two-thirds of fruit and veg consumed in Europe are sourced from here. Almeria is known as “Europe’s garden,” though anything further from that description would be hard to imagine.

Stretching across 31,000 hectares of arid land, the world’s biggest greenhouse means there’s no shortage of work in this province whose fortunes have been turned on their head by plastic, making it one of the richest in Andalusia.

The migrant’s Mediterranean is in expansion and, according to the secretary of the workers union, Comisiones Obreros (CCOO), Maximo Arevalo, 90% of the hard labour is done by migrants, both legal and otherwise, such as spraying, picking and cleaning the plastic roofs of the tunnels.

But as this plastic sea grows, so do the shantytowns, the ensuing segregation and the numbers of workers being treated inhumanely.

According to human rights lawyer Ruben Romero from Cepaim, a pro-integration NGO, between 4,000 and 5,000 migrant workers in Almería’s district of Nijar are living like Ayoub in shacks cobbled together from plastic sheeting and debris in which they freeze in winter and boil in summer. In the province, the numbers may be as many as 10,000.

Exploitation and abuse

Regarding pay, Saidou Konkisre, 30, says it’s a case of mañana: “Tomorrow. Tomorrow. There’s never money.”

Arriving in Spain in 2013 after working his way north from Burkino Faso, Saidou is the first immigrant worker in Spain to see his former employer receive a prison sentence for exploitation and abusive work practices. In broken Spanish, he explains how his boss, Francisco Gomez Mas of Joma Invernaderos SL, confiscated his passport and refused to pay him and eight others for long 12-hour days in his greenhouses in the district of El Ejido. At the end of the shift, Saidou was expected to guard the farm equipment in a shed near Roquetas del Mar with no access to running water or toilet facilities and no sleeping quarters. He was promised €10 a night.

“The first month, he paid,” says Saidou. “Then the second and third, he stopped. He wanted to fight us when we asked for our money. My boss now has also not paid me. Now it is over a month late. All the bosses are bad,” he says with resignation.

Credit: Heather Galloway
Saidou KonkisreCredit: Heather Galloway

Saidou has legal status, thanks to his decision to tell the police what was going on at Joma Invernaderos; instead of deporting him, the police relayed his story to the CCOO workers’ union, who put the wheels of justice in motion. He was given €5,000 in damages and now has a bed in a flat in San Isidro he shares with eight others for €80 a month.

CCOO secretary, Maximo Arevalo says the abuse and exploitation are not systematic but that there are many cases in which workers are subject to terrible conditions.

“The immigrants are afraid and there’s a lack of information. They’re scared that if they tell the police, they will be deported or sacked. Their bosses tell them what to say during inspections as well as to police or journalists. The farmers have the worst collective labour agreement in the country. They should pay €7.28 but they are paying €3 or €4; €5 at most.”

The president of the umbrella association of producers (COAG), Andrés Gongora says the farmers, particularly the small ones, are struggling to keep their heads above water as the buyers don’t offer a stable price for their produce.

“We need the supermarkets to tell us how much they are going to pay. It’s very difficult to work with uncertainty,” he explains.

Many of the immigrants also believe the farmers are out of cash.

I don’t understand how anyone can use housing as a motive to attack the farming sector without looking further into the problem

“The bosses don’t have money,” Ousman, 24, from Mali tells me. Arevalo, however, dismisses any suggestion of this being an excuse for unpaid or low wages. “What I see is the wealth,” he says. “The car the boss drives into the farm, the golf club he belongs to, the lifestyle. The excuse that there’s no money is not valid. If you can’t pay the people working for you, reduce the size of your farm.”

Cepaim lawyer Romero believes that around 50% of producers are not treating their employees as they should while the other 50% are trying to do right by their staff.

“There are bosses that are really helpful in providing all the documentation to get their employees legalised and there are those who haven’t paid their workers for months. Or those who get them to work for nothing more than food and board,” he says. “It’s very diverse. Some of our best experiences have been with small farmers; we give out awards for producers that nurture diversity and equality.”

COAG’s president says there are 17,000 fruit and vegetable producers in Almeria and estimates 10% of them are organic, all using acres of plastic without exception – “How else would they do it?” he enquires.

Asked if there was a difference between how the organic producers and the ordinary producers treat their workers, Romero from Cepaim responds with a categorical “no.” Produce that, by definition, might suggest a more ethical and honest means of production is not necessarily above reproach, a view backed by reviews on Google for several organic companies. “Welcome to the place where slavery is still current,” says one of Biosabor; and, “There’s bad hygiene but worst of all is the inhuman degrading treatment on behalf of some of the people in charge,” says another.

As Arevalo says, when it comes to organic, it’s not just about the pesticides and chemicals and saving water: “There’s a social contract too and that is something that also needs to be complied with.”

'This is not a banana republic'

Organic or otherwise, Gongora is horrified that all the producers are being tarred with the same brush. He himself is a small producer with one worker from Mali whom he pays the official minimum wage of €7.28.

“I can’t say all the farmers are doing the right thing because that would be hypocritical. But to put us all in the same sack seems unjust,” he says. “Also, there are processes for filing complaints. This is not a banana republic.”

Gongora also objects strongly to the suggestion that the producers are responsible for providing the immigrants with accommodation.

“I don’t understand how anyone can use housing as a motive to attack the farming sector without looking further into the problem,” he says. “The shantytowns break my heart. But I think it is a social and political problem and, between us all, we have to ensure it is possible for these people to live in decent conditions. Blaming one sector of society simply creates a tense, hostile atmosphere.”

Cepaim lawyer Romero agrees that the responsibility for decent housing should be shared but also points out that a large part of the problem is bureaucratic.

“Anyone wanting to rent an apartment is asked for payslips and maybe even insurance,” he says. “Who’s going to rent to someone without papers, who doesn’t speak the language and isn’t registered with the local authorities? The council needs to make it easier for undocumented immigrants to register on the local census.”

In a bid to eradicate at least some of Almeria’s 92 shantytowns, the local Nijar authorities have launched a pilot scheme this year offering land on which the producers can build accommodation for their workers. The plot in question is 3,000 metres squared – the area of Ayoub’s shantytown that burned to the ground was 8,000 metres squared. According to Romero, it is a start but does not address the scale of the problem. “It’s not nearly enough,” he says.

'They come for handouts'

Meanwhile, several kilometres away, in the trendy resort of San José, hotel owner Joaquin Villegas Rodriguez’s concern over the migrants takes an altogether different shape. “They come for handouts,” he says. They can get €400 for each child from the government. And why should the farmers get them their papers? It costs them €600 and the next day, they don’t turn up for work. They go elsewhere.”

Seemingly unfazed by the prospect of the greenhouse plastic blowing into the Mediterranean or the impact of the squalid shantytowns that line the route to the beach, Villegas is worried the night-time landings could damage business.

“There may be tourists on the beach who will feel alarmed,” he says. “Some of the Moroccans coming are delinquents. The Moroccan authorities have opened the jails and are sending them to us as revenge for the conflict over the Sahara. ”

Villegas is not the only one in the area who believes these stories. The extreme right Vox party won almost 35% of the vote in the 2019 general election in the district of Nijar and the province of Almeria has been flagged up by the Spanish Ministry of the Interior for a growing number of hate crimes.

Many point to a link between Vox and the farmers, but it is not one Gongora cares for. He bristles when I mention the contradictory nature of the alliance, given that Vox wants the illegal immigrants used to pick the fruit and veg deported. “I don’t give tuppence for Vox’s views,” he says. “All the COAG farmers want is for the immigrants to be more easily documented and legalised.”

Legal status generally takes three years in Spain; three years working in the plastic tunnels; three years inhaling chemical sprays and sweltering in temperatures of up to 50º C. Ayoub has almost done his time – worked out his sentence as it were.

Once he has, he believes he’ll clear out. “There are plenty of shacks like these in Morocco,” he says, looking around at the wretched state of his home. “I didn’t come here to live in a plastic house.”

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