*The names of all workers in this article have been changed to protect their identities.
Huelva, Spain – In mid-May, the hot air was filled with the sweet smell of strawberry compost. Moroccan woman Jadida* walked on the side of the road with a farm behind her. A pair of large sunglasses almost completely covered her face. The greenhouse surrounds her eyes.
Jadida told her colleagues that she was going to the grocery store to buy things, so on the way back, she had to pass the store to avoid their suspicion, she said at the beginning of the interview.
It is not easy to talk to migrant workers who pick strawberries in the province of Huelva, Spain, the largest red fruit producing region in Europe. The fields are fenced, and many places have surveillance cameras, guards, and electric gates, which will be closed as soon as a stranger approaches.
But after the reporters sent their phone numbers to a group of strawberry pickers in the area and invited them to be interviewed, Jadida called back because she wanted to share her experience of sexual abuse and was allegedly her supervisor.
At first, he treated her very well. But on her second day at work, he tried to persuade her to join his room. She refused, and he started calling her non-stop. Eventually, when she was working in the field, he approached her and tried to force her to have sex with him.
Continual rejection of him has had consequences. The supervisor now threatens to fire her and send her back to Morocco.
“He told the other bosses that I was lazy and didn’t work. He got me into trouble and accused me of things I didn’t do,” Jadida told Al Jazeera.
She is one of thousands of women, many of whom are Moroccans and Romanians, who spend three to six months each year picking strawberries, raspberries and blueberries under the “plastic ocean” in Huelva.
Al Jazeera cooperated with Danwatch investigative media Danwatch and interviewed 16 female farm workers, all of whom signed contracts with the seven largest red fruit producers, whose products are sold to well-known supermarkets in the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark , Germany and Sweden.
Most workers talked about daily humiliation, such as punishment for going to the toilet, union damage, and little or no protection against COVID-19. Several people reported being sexually harassed and extorted.
According to Jadida, many of her colleagues are afraid to reject their boss.
Jadida claimed that the only worker she knew who did this often cried in the greenhouse and eventually moved to another part of the farm.
“As soon as I leave here, I hope he will be arrested,” she said.
Strawberry pickers on temporary work visas rarely have the opportunity to report harassment and abuse.
Most arrived as part of a bilateral “contract of origin” agreement between Morocco and Spain, and in 2019 alone, nearly 20,000 Moroccan women picked Spanish strawberries.
According to the agreement, if immigrants leave the Spanish workplace for any reason, they will lose the opportunity to work in Spain.
In addition, it also emphasized that ANAPEC, the Moroccan national recruitment agency, must ensure that migrant workers return to Morocco after the end of the season. Scholars and NGOs say that this is why ANAPEC requires promising workers to show evidence that they have children under 14 in their families—so they have something to return.
Women live in small apartments far away from any town center—barracks and containers between greenhouses.
Trade unions and local NGOs claim that they are isolated and rely on temporary work visas and rely heavily on the mercy of their employers, not only for safety, but also for basic health standards.
Yasmine*, a 29-year-old worker, said that she became pregnant when she started working for a major strawberry supplier. After two weeks in the field, she had a miscarriage. She bleeds and asks her supervisor to take her to the doctor, but he says she must pay 20 Euros (24 U.S. dollars) for petrol.
Two weeks later, when her condition had not improved, he finally took her to the clinic, which immediately referred her to the hospital.
“My clothes are bleeding. Everyone can see it,” she said.
Although labor unions and NGOs emphasize the lack of legal certainty for temporary workers, the situation for undocumented migrant workers is much worse, and they cannot make allegations of abuse without reporting to the police and being deported.
“If a man likes a female employee, he will harass her. That’s how it is,” Hadia* said, standing in front of her house, about two and a half meters from the nearest row of plastic-covered blueberry bushes.
The small shed she lives in is made up of discarded greenhouse parts, wooden pallets and plastic tarpaulins.
It is located in one of many temporary settlements, which houses some undocumented immigrants working in Spanish agriculture.
Hadiya became an undocumented person when her Moroccan work visa expired two years ago. Since then, on the two farms where she picks strawberries, managers have repeatedly asked her to have sex.
When that happened, “it [was] It’s time to find another workplace,” she said.
It is not clear how many immigrant workers work in Spain.
Last year, Caritas, a Catholic charity, estimated that in Huelva, Almeria, and Tenerife, “more than 12,000 immigrants live in extremely unsanitary conditions and have no direct access to water and sanitation facilities, except for those provided by private institutions. Outside of the sanitation kit, there are no COVID-19 preventive measures. Social organization”.
A study published this year by the Applied Economic Research Foundation estimates that the total number of undocumented immigrants living in Spain is 500,000.
According to the EU Parliament briefing in February, the majority of legal foreign guest workers in Huelva are “Eastern Europeans, followed by Africans-mainly Moroccan women-and Latin Americans”.
The report added: “Hundreds of sub-Saharan migrants live in shanty towns close to fields all year round. Due to the poor working and living conditions of migrant workers, Spain’s agricultural model has been questioned for many years.”
When asked if she had witnessed sexual harassment on the farm, Saeeda*, another undocumented Moroccan worker from the settlement, exclaimed: “Well, yes!
“When a manager hires a woman, he will ask for something in return.”
Saeeda’s fate tells another story about the conditions of undocumented immigration in Spain. Three days after we interviewed her, her cabin caught fire. This situation often occurs in these settlements that do not comply with Spanish fire protection regulations.
Saidda was found dead. The 39-year-old is the only breadwinner for her teenage son, who lives in Morocco with his elderly grandmother. She hadn’t seen them for two years when she died.
According to Angels Escrivà, an associate professor at the University of Huelva and a member of the Mujeres 24H network that supports women migrant workers, the strawberry industry initially recruited Moroccan men.
“But employers think these people are not docile enough; they are forming unions and there were even riots in the 2000s. So they chose women,” she said.
However, female farm workers are far from “docile.”
In the past few years, more and more red fruit producers have taken them to court for development issues.
In 2018, 10 Moroccan women filed a lawsuit against Spanish strawberry producer Doñaña 1998, accusing him of assault, sexual harassment, rape and trafficking. In the same year, four other women sued an unnamed strawberry exporter for sexual harassment and serious labor exploitation.
The Huelva Provincial Court dismissed Doñaña’s 1998 Workers’ case, and they are awaiting the decision of the Labor Court. Their lawyer has appealed the case to the Constitutional Court.
In the second case, the labor court dismissed the case of four women. They have filed an appeal and are still waiting for the criminal court to hear their claim.
The reporters got in touch with another former strawberry picker, who is currently prosecuting a large red fruit exporter on similar charges.
The Spanish authorities said they could not disclose how many such cases are still going on. However, Angels Escrivà and the lawyers of the four women said that they did not know how the women migrant workers won the case.
In 2018, immigrants and Spanish women workers were organized in Jornaleras de Huelva en Lucha (fighting female day laborers), a grassroots union focused on labor needs.
“There is a wrong view that immigrant women don’t organize themselves. Instead, they get together to resist,” said Ana Pinto, a spokesperson for the organization.
In response to allegations of sexual abuse on the farm, Spanish Labor Minister Yolanda Díaz said that the workplace will be inspected.
She was unable to accept an interview for this article. Nor does the trade associations Freshuelva and Interfresa.
Antonio Alvarado Barroso, head of Huelva’s Ministry of Labor and Immigration, did not directly answer questions about sexual harassment, but made a brief comment. “The more inspections, the better,” he said.
In order to protect the identity of workers, it is impossible to confront individual companies about personal stories about sexual harassment.