Spain is one of the European countries most devastated by the pandemic. Besides the thousands of lives lost, COVID-19 has been particularly harsh on the Spanish economy. The number of unemployed people has skyrocketed and the closed borders policy has impacted not only businesses in Spain, but also migrant workers.
Every year, thousands of workers from North Africa and Eastern Europe work in Spanish agriculture. Their contribution to the economy has always been significant, but the pandemic has made it painfully obvious.
Threat of poverty
For the seasonal migrant workers who depend on Spanish agriculture to survive, the pandemic is having deep financial repercussions. There are many workers stranded in Spain without the possibility to work, who now depend on non-governmental organizations such as Doctors of the World for food and health services.
The impromptu shanty towns generated by stranded seasonal migrants pose a health risk for many migrant workers, who mostly lack proper shelter and hygiene facilities. In Almeria settlements alone, there are an estimated 6,000 migrants living in deplorable conditions. Most are from Morocco and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Because these migrant workers are not residents in Spain and many even lack documentation, they are not entitled to the same subsidies that have kept Spaniards afloat amid the pandemic.
Migrant workers in other industries, such as care work, face the same challenges. Indeed, it’s concerning that migrants are now at the forefront of the pandemic on many levels, but they skill lack rights and social security benefits.
Spanish human rights organizations are calling for Spain to follow the example of its next-door neighbor Portugal and temporarily legalize all migrants, thus ensuring at least some level of protection. Portugal has been applauded in international media for treating all migrants, with and without documents, as citizens during the pandemic. This humanitarian policy has inspired many organizations across Europe to demand the same amnesties for migrants in their own countries, both as a human rights and a public health policy.
Several scandals related to the exploitation of migrant agricultural workers in recent years have uncovered human rights abuses in Spanish regions.
Impact on agriculture leads to policy change
The lack of migrant workers has left Spanish agricultural production facing massive problems. Labor intensive crops, such as asparagus, lie unpicked during peak-harvesting time. Considering the importance of agricultural production for exports and for Spain’s own internal consumption – it is Europe’s largest fruit and vegetable exporter – the loss of thousands of crops would be a catastrophe for the already fragile Spanish economy.
The situation is so dire that an association of fruit producers said part of the agricultural sector in Catalonia would risk collapse unless it was possible to recruit 40,000 workers.
Fearing the consequences of losing valuable exports, the Spanish Minister of Agriculture has decided to recruit thousands of illegal migrants, who would normally be denied formal employment, and also allow for Spanish people dependent on subsidies to work in agriculture without losing unemployment benefits. Foreigners between 18 and 21-years-old will be granted temporary residence permits so they can work in the fields and save the Spanish crops.
This is a huge policy shift by Spain, which has been forced to impose strict lockdown measures across the country due to the high death and contagion rate of the pandemic. The policy will not only involve mobilizing a huge number of people to work in the fields, it also grants migrant workers with rights and jobs they desperately need.
Ironically, the pandemic has forced Spanish politicians to see the crucial role of migrant agricultural workers for the economy and how easily agricultural productions stops without them.
Migrant agricultural workers need sustainable change
Migrant agricultural workers differ from other migrant workers due to the seasonal characteristics of their job. It pays a lot more to come to work in Spain for a few months than just working in Morocco, for example, but usually these migrant workers return to their home countries until the crops are ready to be harvested again.
Considering how much of Spanish exports depend on the labor of these migrant workers, we might expect the State to monitor closely whether their rights are being respected or not. However, it has mostly been migrant collectives or investigative journalists to blow the whistle and show the world the terrible conditions endured by many of these workers.
The delicate balance of Spanish agricultural production and labor supply is not unique to that country – France and Germany have also struggled with the lack of migrant seasonal workers during the pandemic.
This situation is an illustration of the fragility supply chains across Europe and how far they still are from sustainable development goals. As Caritas, the international organization puts it in the 16th of April statement:
“The crisis unleashed by the spread of the coronavirus has shown just how fragile and unsustainable our food supply system is. The EU Institutions and Member States should take steps to ensure that the food we eat is not produced under exploitative conditions, harming people or the planet. Rather, in line with the Green Deal and the just tradition, we must build a fairer and more sustainable food system now.”
Organizations around Europe understand that COVID-19 represents a critical moment for migrants rights – it can either be a window of opportunity, as it was in Portugal, or it can be used as an excuse to criminalize the mobility of migrants, as it has been happening in Hungary and other Central-Eastern European countries. There is a looming world economic crisis that could force even more people out of their homes and countries of origin, so migration will not leave the political agenda as a priority anytime soon.
The intrinsic relationship between food production in Europe and the dependency of seasonal migrant workers also raises questions about the kind of Europe the people and the planet need – one where profit justifies everything, including the exploitation of migrants who are denied their rights, or one where both the environmental and social dimensions are equally valued.