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Thursday, March 30, 2023
ALMERIA, Spain, Feb 24 2023 (IPS) - Chances are that the fruits and vegetables sold in European supermarkets have been picked and packed by a migrant worker in southern Spain. By the tens of thousands, they work there, in sweltering hot plastic greenhouses – often underpaid and without residence permit – in the vegetable garden of Europe. “Cheap vegetables, yes. But at what price?”
It is a sunny Saturday afternoon, warm and dry, when we leave the city of Almería, in the southern province of Andalusia, to drive towards the countryside. Leaving the freeway, the lane narrows and turns into a dirt road. The hot desert breeze blows a dusty, brown cloud of sand into the air that completely covers the car in no time. We take a slight turn and drive past impressive mountain ranges.
After ten minutes of driving, in the shadow of a series of imposing rocks, a sea of white plastic appears before us, stretching as far as the eye can see, before merging into the Mediterranean Sea. Thousands of greenhouses are neatly arranged in endless straight rows that turn the arid landscape pale. In all, the greenhouses cover an area 30,000 hectares, visible from outer space.
Spaniards prefer to leave those jobs for migrant workers. They come from North and West Africa, from countries like Morocco, Senegal, Guinea or Nigeria, and in most cases they don't have residence permits, making them easy targets for the local greengrocersWe park the car along the road near the village of Barraquente, a thirty-minute drive east of Almería, and head out into the hot desert. A day earlier we got word of a slum, a “barrio de chabolas”, around here. Undocumented workers picking fruits and vegetables in the greenhouses and working the fields for meager wages are said to have built semi-permanent homes with scrap metal over the years.
Since Spain joined the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union, in the 1980s, agriculture in the province of Andalusia became increasingly intensified and industrialized. Small farms gave way to agricultural giants as monoculture gradually became the norm and has since then become a very lucrative business, with a total annual export value of twelve billion euros worth of agricultural products, destined for the entire European market.
To meet the ever-growing demand for fruits and vegetables from the rest of Europe, more and more hands are needed in the fields. And although Andalusia is one of the country’s poorest regions, with sky-high unemployment rates, it is mostly underpaid undocumented migrants who perform the ungrateful jobs. Temperatures in the greenhouses soar above 45 degrees Celsius in the summer, drinking water is scarce and, combined with the intensive use of pesticides, the work on that southern outskirt of Europe forms a deadly cocktail.
Estimates vary, but according to union representative José García Cueves, about a hundred thousand migrants work in the greenhouses, scattered throughout the area. Along with his wife, José García represents union SOC SAT, the only organization that exposes and represents the interests of the victims of exploitation in the greenhouses around Almería.
“Spaniards prefer to leave those jobs for migrant workers. They come from North and West Africa, from countries like Morocco, Senegal, Guinea or Nigeria, and in most cases they don’t have residence permits, making them easy targets for the local greengrocers,” he says from behind his cluttered office in an impoverished neighborhood of Almería.
Despite his noble mission, José is not loved by most Andalusians, quite the contrary. “The farmers could drink our blood. The tires of my car get regularly punctured and physical intimidation is also not exceptional.”
“Even the local authorities turn a blind eye to the region’s problems and challenges. All in the name of economic growth,” Garcia said. “Look, there are only 12 inspectors responsible for greenhouse inspections, and that’s in a vast area where you can drive around for hours without running into anyone. Do you think that’s realistic? Workers are reduced to expendable tools, overnight someone can lose their job.”
Afraid of the sea
In the slum by the roadside, we speak with one of the workers, Richard, a 26-year-old man from Nigeria. Bathing in sweat, he arrives on his bicycle. His morning shift in the greenhouse is over and he takes us into the village. The sun is at its highest, it is scorching hot.
“The shifts start early in the morning, when the temperature is still bearable,” he points out. “By noon we are entitled to a break, because it is too hot to work then. Around 5 p.m. we return into the greenhouse and pick tomatoes and peppers until after sunset.” He says the hard work earns him about thirty euros a day.
The young man puffs, grabs a bottle of water from a decayed refrigerator and falls down in a dusty seat in the scorching sun. His clothes and worn-out shoes are covered in dust. “I have lived here for two years now,” he says in between large gulps of water. Via Morocco, he crossed the Mediterranean Sea by boat. “It was dangerous, I can’t swim and was afraid of falling overboard.” Through a shadowy network of human smugglers, Richard ended up here in Andalusia, undocumented.
Traces of destruction
We move further into the village, accompanied by Richard, when several residents gather around us. They point to a large pile of sand, one meter high, that has been raised like a wall around one part of the camp. Two years ago, a large fire broke out there, killing one person. “We were able to stop the fire by digging a large moat, preventing it from spreading throughout the camp,” they say. Traces of the fire are still clearly visible; blackened shoes and charred clothes are still scattered throughout the moat.
Fire is the greatest danger for many residents. Unionist José Garcia confirms this. The various homes in the slum have grown intertwined. They are made of wood and recycled plastic from the greenhouses. Combined with the hot weather and dryness of the desert, those neighborhoods form a dangerous cocktail of easily flammable fuels.
Still, the residents of the camp try to make the best of it. They take us to a small hut where they stare furiously at an English Premier League football match. Further down the camp, a man is doing his dishes. They illegally tap running water – and electricity – from the regular grid. The atmosphere is good. Boubacar, 24, from Senegal, proudly shows us the gym he was able to cobble together with his own hands using some materials lying around: empty cans filled with concrete have been transformed into homemade dumbbells and a large bag of sand serves as a weight to train his back.
Next to the gym is a vegetable garden where traditional African crops grow. The peace is disturbed when a Spaniard arrives in a red van. Half a dozen men rush up to it and begin negotiating vigorously with the man. It turns out he is selling fish. “Straight from the sea,” he proudly proclaims. The boys don’t care what kind of fish they buy. “We have no choice. Because of our limited budget, we can’t really afford to be picky.”
Many residents of the camps are eager to get out of the area. “Once we have worked for five years, we will become a long-term resident of the European Union, so we can travel freely around Europe,” says Boubacar. How exactly that works out, he does not know. “It depends on my boss and how well I do my job. I hope to live in France or even the Netherlands and build a life there with my family, away from Spain. There is no future here.”
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