The women described patterns of sexual abuse and harsh working conditions.
By Katya Schwenk
Rabat – New footage of the conditions Moroccan female workers face harvesting strawberries in Spain aired Sunday on the acclaimed Spanish news series “Salvados.”
The episode, hosted by Jordi Evole, investigated the plight of seasonal migrants for the week of International Women’s Day. In interviews, Moroccan women described foul, overcrowded living conditions; sexual abuse at the hands of their supervisors; and long, irregular hours.
“Do you know that in Spain we celebrate International Working Women’s Day?” Evole asked one Moroccan worker. “Will you protest or strike?”
“If there’s fruit, we always work, holiday or no holiday,” she answered, after Évole explained to her what the word for strike—huelga—meant.
A long history of abuse
Each year, Spanish strawberry and berry farms recruit tens of thousands of female Moroccan workers through Morocco’s national employment agency, ANAPEC. Spain announced in January that over 19,000 Moroccan women would travel to pick strawberries in the Huelva province for the 2019 season. The first group of workers for the year sailed out from the port of Tangier on February 1 and will return to Morocco in June.
The workers are all married women with children, per government requirements intended to prevent visa overstays. And though demand has grown in Morocco for the seasonal labor jobs, workers have long complained of abuse and exploitative conditions on Spanish berry farms.
Last year, four female workers accused a supervisor on a Huelva farm of sexual assault, leading to widespread media coverage. In response, the Spanish judiciary opened an investigation into the case, and the Moroccan government promised new measures to support its seasonal workers in Spain.
‘Work, slavery, and suffering’
But Sunday’s new footage makes it plain that conditions for Moroccan workers remain perilous. Aintzane Marquez, a lawyer for the women’s rights organization WomenLink, showed a video she obtained from Spanish news agency El Pais to “Salvados” that depicts squalid showers filled with sand and insects as well as overcrowded housing.
Most women live on or directly adjacent to the farms, Marquez said, isolating them from local communities. They often work late into the evenings or are not informed of their working hours in advance. In a clip from the episode, one woman described the life as “work, slavery, and suffering.”
Marquez said that the conditions do not match the information companies gave workers on living standards before their employment. She is currently representing four Moroccan women who have filed legal complaints against the farms.
Several women spoke to Evole about sexual assault on the farms, describing a long-term pattern of abuse with few avenues for recourse. One woman alleged that a supervisor demanded she sleep with him or he would not allow her to work.
“The boss thinks he has a right to it,” said a woman that Evole interviewed. “Look, we’re going back to the Middle Ages.”
Still, demand for seasonal labor jobs continues to grow in Morocco, particularly in the underemployed city of Oujda in the northeast. Last year, 2,500 Moroccan seasonal workers declared their intent to stay in Spain, despite efforts by both governments to maximize return. For many women, the work offers a rare lifeline out of poverty for them and their children, regardless of the risks.