The upcoming Wimbledon tennis tournament is famous for its strawberries.The Observer reveals the working conditions of some who pick these strawberries. Spain is the biggest exporter of strawberries to Europe. The fruit has become so valuable to the national economy that it has been dubbed Spain’s “red gold”. The UK is Spain’s third biggest export market for strawberries.
Moroccan women say they have faced exploitation and abuse. International human rights lawyers warn the allegations could amount to “state-sponsored human trafficking” between Morocco and Spain. They claim they were deliberately deceived when they were recruited by the Ministry for Employment in Morocco in February. They say they were promised good housing, free food and a decent wage if they worked for three months. The women also claim they each paid about €700 for their visa, transport to Spain and protective clothing, such as boots and gloves.
When they arrived, they say they were forced to live in unsanitary and inhumane housing with no access to clean drinking water. They claim they were not paid for their labour, threatened and racially abused and saw other women being sexually assaulted. When they complained, they said they were threatened with being sent back to Morocco with no pay.
“...when we got to Spain they made us feel like animals,” said one woman. “The farm owner only knew one phrase in Arabic, which was: 'Work, bitch, or you’ll be sent back to Morocco.'” She says they were told if they didn’t pick enough fruit they couldn’t take a break or go to the toilet. “I worked for three weeks but only got paid for a few days,” she says. “I’m not a slave or a prostitute. I want to go home but I can’t go back without my wages.”
“I worked for weeks but didn’t get paid. When [myself and other women] complained and asked for our money, buses arrived at the accommodation and women were made to get on and they were sent away,” said another woman who reported her claims to the police. “I’m so scared of going home because I took out a bank loan to pay for my visa and I have no way of paying it back without my wages. I thought coming here would let me help my children but instead they are going hungry at home.”
“Multiple women have now come forward but so far the Spanish legal system has failed to sufficiently investigate their claims,” says Almudena Bernabeu, an international human rights lawyer at Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers in London and Madrid. “It appears as if there are insufficient measures in place to ensure that the working and living conditions of Moroccan women working in Spain are what was promised. The situation currently is weighed almost entirely in favour of the landowners and corporations profiting from their labour. The allegations being made amount to state-sponsored human trafficking and they must be properly dealt with.”
Lawyers and human rights activists say that the Spanish legal system has no interest in the claims.
Women’s Link Worldwide, an international NGO operating in Spain and providing legal services for migrant women, is representing another four women trying to get their claims of abuse accepted by the courts. “The criminal courts recently threw out the charges we have filed because they said that the conditions described in the women’s witness statements, such as non-payment of wages, 10-hour working days and verbal and physical abuse, did not constitute labour exploitation,” says Hannah Wilson, a lawyer at the organisation.
“These women are faced with a choice of staying and fighting a system that is weighed against them or returning home and trying to see their children again,” says Belen Saez, who is now representing 14 women claiming they faced abuse while working in Spain. “If they are not given access to justice nothing will change. These women are being ignored because of their gender, their race and their economic status. All we are asking is that the workers are paid properly and treated humanely.”