Desperate for work opportunities, Moroccan women continue to work seasonal labor jobs in Spain, despite reports of abuse at the hands of their employers.
Rabat – In Morocco, a country where seven out of ten women are unemployed, thousands choose to travel annually to Spain for work. In accordance with a bilateral agreement between the two countries, Moroccan workers are able to receive temporary visas for seasonal labor jobs in Spain’s strawberry fields. Women find these jobs through employment centers that promise good wages, comfortable accommodation, and health care.
The centers recruit based on age, sex, and marital status, both to offer opportunities to marginalized women and hire candidates less likely to stay in Spain after the harvesting season ends.
Once in Spain, many find conditions very different from what they were promised. Instead, the women live in overcrowded buildings, often working without pay. Multiple women have reported incidents of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of their employers.
“Before I left my home I was like a hero to everyone. Nobody in my village had ever had the chance to go and work in a rich country like Spain,” one woman told the Guardian. “But it has turned out to be the worst decision of my life.”
Valued at €580 million, Spain’s strawberry export business is Often referred to as “red gold”. Most strawberries are grown at farms in the Huelva province in southern Spain.
As part of a 2001 bilateral agreement between Morocco and Spain, almost 20 thousand Moroccan workers now travel to Huelva every year for seasonal work picking fruit.
Last June ten Moroccan women filed complaints against their former employer, Spanish strawberry grower Doñaña 1998 d’Almonte, citing allegations of labor violations, sexual harassment, and abuse at the hands of their managers.
The Moroccan nationals claimed they were forced to work long hours, denied bathroom breaks, and punished for not working fast enough. They said they were housed in dirty shipping containers, not the nice apartments they were shown at the recruitment centers. They often worked without pay, wages were often withheld until the women completed their seasonal contracts.
Unable to speak Spanish, the women struggled to defend themselves.
Out in the fields, some said they suffered racial abuse. Some claimed they were sexually assaulted by their managers and others said they were raped.
The ten women suing d’Almonte were part of a larger group of about 100 women who came forward last year with complaints of poor conditions on the farm in Huelva. A few days after reporting their plight, the women were forced onto buses and sent back to Morocco. Some had not yet received any payment for their months of work on the farm.
Nine women managed to escape from the buses. With the help of local activists and a labor union, they joined another former worker to form the group of women involved in the lawsuit.
“They brought us to exploit us and then to send us back. I wish I drowned in the sea and died before arriving in Spain,” one woman told the New York Times.
Unable to work, the ten women are now confined to Spain they await trial.
Spanish courts have been slow following through with the investigation. The Provincial Court of Huelva initially closed the case in December of 2018, but the women’s hopes were renewed in May when their case was reopened.
The women’s’ difficulties stretch beyond Spain’s borders. Women who have suffered sexual abuse can be stigmatized in Morocco. After going public with the allegations last year, the women lost the support of their conservative families, and most of their husbands have filed for divorce.
The ten women involved in the lawsuit are not the first or the last to come forward with allegations of abuse at the hands of their seasonal employers in Huelva. As early as 2010, El Pais reported on discrimination and assault Moroccan women endured on Spanish strawberry farms.
Despite previous reports of abuse and the ongoing lawsuit, Moroccan employment agencies continued to recruit women, posting new positions in January. Hundreds of women, some desperate for work and others lured by the promise of earning up to 3,500 Euros in one season, applied in person at an Agricultural Training Center in the rural town of Sidi Alal Tazi in January.
“Here in Morocco, I work from four in the morning to five in the afternoon in the harvest of peas in exchange for 50 dirhams a day. If I work for three months in Spain (with daily wages ranging between 35 and 40 Euro) I will return with savings that will allow me to dedicate more time to my children,” Fatima Qazab, one of the women applying to work in Spain, told Spanish news agency Efe.
The National Employment Promotion Agency (ANAPEC), headquartered in Casablanca, manages to hire and mediating between prospective job candidates and Spanish businessmen. The agency said it privileged women with dependent children, and especially those widowed or divorced, a practice General director Abdelmunim El Madani said helps “break the cycle of exclusion” of many rural women in Morocco.
Whereas ANAPEC said this focus is designed to empower these women, others claim it makes the women more vulnerable.
Alicia Navascues, who works with women’s rights group Mujeres 24, told the Guardian “In Morocco, they are deliberately looking for those who are cheap and vulnerable to do this work, namely rural women with young children who only understand Arabic, cannot understand their contracts written in Spanish or claim their rights.”
Early in July of this year, fresh allegations of abuse from the latest group of seasonal workers who began working in Huelva in February of 2019.
“We were told we’d be treated like professional workers and be treated with dignity,” one of the women told the Guardian. “But when we got to Spain they made us feel like animals.”