Women's Rights

Strawberry Fields Should Never

Report from a visit to Spain's strawberry fields
In the fields of the southwestern region of Huelva, Spain, for three months of every year, around 13,000 women pick the strawberries we love to see on our tables. "They are strawberries without rights", is what the women day labourers told the feminist observation brigade which spent three days touring the strawberry agribusiness' fields together with Jornaleras de Huelva en lucha (Huelva women day labourers fighting back).
In the fields of the southwestern region of Huelva, Spain, for three months of every year, around 13,000 women pick the strawberries we love to see on our tables. "They are strawberries without rights", is what the women day labourers told the feminist observation brigade which spent three days touring the strawberry agribusiness' fields together with Jornaleras de Huelva en lucha (Huelva women day labourers fighting back).

Ana Pinto comes from a family of day labourers and has worked in the fields since she was 16 years old, "until doors began to close on me in 2018 after denouncing seasonal workers' working conditions and demanding rights", she explains. And so, in adverse conditions and fighting for rights against an employer using every imaginable legal and non-legal exploitation and control mechanism, Jornaleras de Huelva en Lucha was formed and a feminist trade unionism based on the self-organisation of workers started to take shape.

Listening to them means entering into a feminism that fights to improve the material living conditions of women subjected to systematic abuse in a patriarchal, racist, capitalist and ecocidal context. Pastora Filigrana of Abogadas Sociedad Cooperativa Andaluza (Andalusian Women Lawyers Cooperative) clarifies: "I once said that the strawberry-growing region of Huelva is a laboratory where we can see te system that intertwines the violence of capitalism, patriarchy, racism and the exploitation of land and natural resources at work. All aspects of the neoliberal system in a single region".

The patterns of exploitation

The women day labourers hired in Huelva earn paltry wages, work seven-hour days with a twenty-minute break and some have been working in the strawberry industry for up to sixteen years on temporary service contracts with no chance of consolidating their rights. They often have to combine their work with other jobs as the salary barely covers their basic needs, let alone any savings. Their work is governed by labour regulations contained in a specific Huelva agricultural labour agreement, whose non-compliance is difficult to report due to the well-founded fear of reprisals and the inaction of labour inspectors. Their working conditions include surveillance to control their productivity (for which they are fitted with a chip), monitoring their movements, their clothing, what they talk about and even when they have to use the bathroom (for which they have to sign up).

We need to talk about this new 21st century slavery (at times bordering on trafficking), linked to migration and the border system. The women day labourers arriving in Huelva on contracts at origin in Morocco, where they are obliged to return at the end of the picking season, do so under a specific job offer that fails to comply with collective bargaining agreement conditions and violates basic human rights. We all know that the absence of rights leads to impunity, and no limitst to abuses.

They come to work for three months with a salary of just over 40 euros/day plus overtime (which is not always available), but they have no guarantee of returning with the agreed amount that would allow them to support their families back home. The numbers don't add up because, if an employer decides there is no production on a given day, they don't work and don't get paid. If an employer decides to hire other day labourers directly and replace them, they don't get paid. If they get sick and can't work, they don't get paid.

So let's do the math: the employer only pays for the return ferry ticket but the women pay for the transfer cost from their village and they pay for the outbound ferry as well as for the visa. They also pay for an insurance policy with La Caixa they are obliged to take out, and sign without anyone clarifying its contents and without being able to trust the interpreters hired by the company, if there are any. What insurance cover they have is a mystery and the cost can be as high as 150 euros. They also pay for food and are charged 50 euros for the barracks that they share between six or eight women even though housing should be guaranteed in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement. In short, they can' t make ends meet. The women explain that in the past they were given an account passbook and could check their bank account movements but now they no longer have access to a way of checking them. The control mechanisms are being refined. 

The farm supervisors also control their movement. Talking to us was an act of generosity and courage because they risked reprisals and it could even result in the termination of their contracts. This is why they cannot give their names or appear in any photos, and our meeting had to be "clandestine", travelling on secondary roads and away from any public space. 

The settlements

In settlements like the one in Palos de la Frontera (one of 11 in Andalusia), women and men, mostly sub-Saharan Africans, live poorly. Regardless of whether they have official documents or not, they live in shacks made of wooden pallets, which they pay one and a half euros each for, covered with cardboard and plastic sheeting, for which they are also charged. They have no access to water, sanitation or electricity. There is nothing. They live in fear and anguish in a situation that is forced upon them by the application procedure through the ley de extranjería (Spanish immigration law), which forces them into illegality. The three-year period needed to apply for residence gives the employers the same margin during which to turn them into a slave labour force and subject them to unbearable living conditions. 

This is what is happening in a town like Palos de la Frontera, a rich town governed by Partido Popular where the Vox vote rose sharply in the last elections. A town with a considerable municipal budget thanks to the taxes it collects from the companies and refineries in Huelva's outer harbour. A few days before visiting, a fire had destroyed part of the shacks and the little they held because the jerry cans used to carry water were not enough to put the fire out. The wait for the fire brigade resulted in the workers' few belongings being burnt to a crisp. Such a tragedy is only possible with the complicity of social entities, of all levels of public administration (local, regional and state), and the inefficiency of the trade unions.

The cost of being a woman, and racialised

There is a reason why this situation exists, Pastora Filigrana points out: "As long as there are pockets of poverty with undocumented people, no trade union struggle will succeed because there will always be a fearful, cheap and exploitable workforce to replace us with if we protest". The poorest are those most easily dispossessed of their rights with impunity and here, they are racialised women with a migration status which makes them vulnerable.

A look at how recruitment criteria have changed over time is enough to show that the employers' organisation clearly understands this. They went from hiring men to hiring women from Eastern European countries, and then to Moroccan women for whom particular rules were established. They have to be between 18 and 45 years old and have a family in their country of origin with at least one under-age child. Gender mandates and family ties are supposed to guarantee their supposed "docility" and assured return to Morocco. 

This class racism, supported by hate speech against migrants, seeks maximum economic benefit by overexploiting their labour and trying to divide locals and migrants. The feminist trade union Asociación de Jornaleras de Huelva en lucha encourages seasonal workers to organise. "We are fighting to change the working and living conditions of all seasonal workers, to obtain rights for all because it is right and necessary to confront the employers' strategy of 'divide and rule'". As they explain, this is an age-old mechanism that uses fear to stop protests, push wages down and make everyone's living and working conditions even more precarious.

To ensure these life conditions, they need information, counselling, access to public services, health, housing, justice, protection in case of sexual violence and to have lives free of violence. "We work together on the basis of feminism, anti-racism and environmentalism," says Ana Pinto. 

The ecological cost of the strawberry agro-industry

Ana Pinto is looking to the future, to the need to rethink this socially and environmentally unsustainable intensive production model, and to move towards ecological agriculture. Unfortunately, far from proposing an alternative production model that respects people's rights and sustains the land and resources, business owners are opting for expansion to new areas with other crops (blueberries, oranges or avocados) under the same conditions.

According to Iñaki Olano, head of water at Ecologistas en Acción in Huelva, agribusiness always intensely exploits people, water and land in order to obtain the highest possible profits. Exploitation of the land comes through deforestation of pine forests and changes in land use, exploitation of water through extracting water from illegal wells, many of which have been denounced, located, and some of which have theoretically been shut down. "We either rethink or there will be a collapse because there isn't enough water and, it will be followed by employment collapsing. This kind of extractivist process leaves behind a desert of employment and land," Olano points out.

For this reason, we have to commit to moving towards ecological agriculture which prioritises quality and local markets and a change in how consumption of fresh produce is perceived. Perhaps then strawberries would come with rights. 

A message to other feminisms

In 2018, reports of several female day labourers denouncing sexual abuse hit the media and social networks. They were appealing to a feminism that, unlike in the infamous 2016 case of the "la manada" gang rape, hardly mobilised. Aren't all lives and bodies worth the same? Day labourer organisation, their struggle and resistance, their trade unionist feminism, is challenging the capacity of the feminist movement to be inclusive, and to be able to articulate the struggle for the material living conditions of all those who are affected by violence. 

Before returning to Madrid, I asked Ana Pinto what she would say to other feminisms. This was her answer: "drop the violence around some of the debates and look at women's living conditions, join our feminist, anti-racist and environmentalist struggles, which are also the struggles of the kellys, sex workers, domestic workers, health workers, and which should be the struggles for all of us". We need a grassroots feminism that leaves no one out and puts a dignified life for all women at its centre.

Justa Montero is a feminist activist

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Justa Montero
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