CORONAVIRUS

Fruit pickers on Spain’s coronavirus outbreak: ‘What terrifies me is not being able to feed my children’

EL PAÍS talks to some of the hundreds of migrant workers in Huesca who remain in the province despite a new spike in Covid-19 cases

Migrant workers in Huesca.
Migrant workers in Huesca.JUAN BARBOSA

“I’m not afraid of dying. I’m not scared of the coronavirus. What terrifies me is not being able to feed my three children.” Like dozens of other migrants from Africa, 31-year-old Chikh Oumarov left Senegal to work as a fruit picker in the northeastern Spanish province of Huesca. On Monday, he was waiting on the sidewalk of a bus station in the town of Fraga. This is where farmers pass by in vans to hire workers to pick peaches and nectarines in nearly 40ºC heat for €5 an hour.

This very area of Huesca, which borders Lleida in Catalonia, is the only place in Spain that has been forced to return to Phase 2 of the deescalation plan due to coronavirus outbreaks in the municipalities of Zaidín and Binéfar.

Many of the farmers who arrive in search of workers come from these municipalities and part of the spike in infections is due to the difficulty fruit pickers have in maintaining safe distances and hygiene measures at work.

In some cases, the workers sleep on top of cardboard or in overcrowded warehouses. But despite the risk of contagion, the coronavirus is not enough to deter these fruit pickers. They know of fellow workers who have contracted Covid-19 and have been isolated, but still they wait on the street, hoping for work. “Black people suffer a lot, we are not afraid of poison,” says Filiban, who is also from Senegal.

Many of the fruit pickers arrived after agricultural associations warned that they would not be able to hire foreign workers with Spain’s borders closed due to the coronavirus lockdown. The news prompted hundreds of migrants, who were already in Spain working in the informal economy, to travel to the countryside.

Zaidín is one of the municipalities that has registered the highest number of coronavirus outbreaks, most of which were detected in the fruit company Frutas La Espesa. The mayor of Zaidín, Marco Ibarz, says the number of positive cases ranges between “18 and 20” people. “The municipality lives from agriculture. There are 1,730 residents on the municipal register and we estimate that now there are 1,500 fruit pickers who are living on the farms or in houses in town,” says Ibarz. “The company [Frutas La Espesa] is meeting the safety obligations, but [the fruit pickers] go and work eight hours, and then live their lives in the other 16.”

A walk around Zaidín reveals a lot about the relationship between the fruit pickers and the local residents. In a sidewalk bar, several elderly patrons sit on one side of the street, while three workers sit at tables belonging to the same bar, but on the other side of the road. A car comes and drops off seven fruit pickers, even though the vehicle only has five spaces. “I am from Mali, it is the first year that I have come here. I’m good,” says one of the workers. No one criticizes the company’s security measures or conditions in the fields.

Adrià, the head of marketing at Frutas La Espesa, says the company is not to blame for the outbreaks: “We have met all the protocols.” According to the company representative, the spike in infections was caused by two issues. “Fruit pickers who have said they are not sick so they can continue working combined with a group of girls who were at an outdoor drinking session in Binéfar, where there were several cases, and later came to work,” says Adrià. “It was a perfect storm and worse still, we are the ones who are paying the price.”

Afternoon falls on Fraga and more fruit pickers arrive. “The difference between here and Lleida is that there are many more workers from Romania. We work better,” jokes Salibah from Gambia. “What is true is that not all of us can be happy in this world and it hasn’t happened for us. It’s okay, next week a boss will definitely hire us for a lot of days and pay us well,” says Oumarov. After 10 years in Spain, he wants to return to his country. He had a ticket for mid-April but his flight was cancelled due to the coronavirus crisis. Now he is desperately looking for work in an area of Spain with no outbreaks.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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