Fruit pickers trapped in Spain: ‘We have run out of money and need to return to Morocco’

More than 7,000 migrant workers have finished the strawberry harvesting season in Huelva province but cannot return home as borders remain closed due to the coronavirus pandemic

(l-r) Fatna, Saidia, Najiya and two other migrant workers from Morocco outside their home in Huelva province.
(l-r) Fatna, Saidia, Najiya and two other migrant workers from Morocco outside their home in Huelva province.Prelsi Huelva

“I came here to pick strawberries, but the season is over and now I can’t go home. My family needs me, and the money I’d saved for them is being spent on food to survive,” says Fatna, a 46-year-old seasonal worker from Morocco with six children waiting for her back home.

Like her, there are around 7,100 Moroccans who arrived in southern Spain in January for the strawberry picking season, but who now find themselves unable to go back because their government has kept its borders sealed since mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Although Rabat has announced it will start reopening its borders on Wednesday, travel from Spain will for now only be allowed by air. But airfare is out of reach for these laborers, whose contracts ended between mid-June and July.

Unable to work, almost penniless, far from their children whom they haven’t seen for over six months, and with nobody to tell them when they might be able to go home, their situation is increasingly desperate.

Their employers, union leaders and non-profit groups are warning that the situation could turn into “a humanitarian crisis” if the governments of Morocco and Spain do not find a solution soon.

Spanish government sources said that both governments are immersed in “intense” talks, but neither of the two Spanish ministries most closely involved in the matter, Migration and Foreign Affairs, are taking direct responsibility in the negotiations, nor are they providing any details.

Meanwhile, the regional government of Andalusia has offered the Moroccan workers free PCR coronavirus tests, and the Moroccan consul in Seville has been negotiating for weeks with Spanish government representatives in Huelva to get the group transferred. But so far, the only progress has been the repatriation of around 100 women who were pregnant, had just given birth, or were ill.

“We don’t know whose fault it is, but we came here to work and we are willing to take all necessary tests. We listen to the news from Morocco, and there is talk about migrants abroad, but very little talk about us,” complains Saidia, a laborer who has been coming to Spain to pick strawberries for 13 years, and who is urging her government to do something about their situation.

“We hope that the steps we have been taking with Spanish and Moroccan authorities will soon bear fruit,” said Pedro Marín, the manager of Interfresa, a strawberry trade association in Huelva. “They’ve been coming to work in Huelva for over a decade, and they are a basic pillar for the companies that they work for.”

Najiya has also been crossing the Strait of Gibraltar every winter for over a decade in order to pick strawberries for the same agricultural cooperative. This year, her work ended on June 19. Under the terms of her contract, she and the other seven workers she shares an apartment with did not have to pay any rent, only the utilities. But in light of the situation, their employer has decided to extend their free rent and is also covering the utility expenses even though their contract has expired.

“We talk to our families almost every day to see what the situation is back home, and they tell us that things are getting worse every day,” says Najiya, who has two children aged eight and 14.

These workers come from small, low-income communities where the money they earn from picking strawberries in Spain is enough to live on for nearly the entire year. So having to spend those earnings on food and other necessities while stuck in Spain represents a serious economic setback for them, not to mention the stress of not knowing how long their plight will last.

“Some of us had the possibility of going to work at estates in our own villages when we returned, but now we’ve lost that opportunity,” notes Saidia. “But what we really care about now is being with our families, because some of us have ill parents or children who also need us.”

Many employers have taken on the cost of housing the stranded workers, and some are even paying for their everyday needs while seeking to close a deal with Morocco so the latter country will cover these expenses.

The Human Rights Association of Andalusia wants to see “a radical review of the hiring agreement that will improve [the workers'] conditions and guarantee a dignified job.” This group also said that the laborers’ living and repatriation expenses should be shared between Madrid and Rabat.

According to the contract conditions, employers pay for the workers’ journey from Morocco to the Huelva greenhouses, which includes a ferry trip and a bus ride. But the workers have to pay their own way back, which costs around €45.

The women now feel abandoned. “Many of them are living in isolated areas far from village centers, and they have no means of transportation to get there,” explains Ana Pinto, a member of the laborers’ association Jornaleras del Campo. These days, the stranded women can often be seen walking in groups along the paths near the hamlet of El Rocío, on their way to or from a bus stop that will take them to the nearest municipality to do some grocery shopping.

They refuse to talk. Many of them do not speak Spanish and they are illiterate, making it difficult for them to establish a direct relationship with the Moroccan consulate or any other authority from their country. Instead, information reaches them through non-profit groups or through advisors at Prelsi, Interfresa’s ethical and social responsibility project.

Some cooperatives have been trying to help the women find similar work in other parts of Spain. Around 40 have traveled to Segovia to pick strawberries there. But most of them would rather stay closer to Morocco in case they are suddenly allowed to go back, said Fatna. For now, they continue to wait amid the empty greenhouses.

English version by Susana Urra.

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