Workers in Spain’s Strawberry Fields Speak Out on Abuse

ALMONTE, Spain — A little over a year ago, a young mother left her children in the care of her husband in Morocco and went to work on a strawberry farm near the city of Almonte, on Spain’s southwestern coast.

Pregnant with her third child and needing money, she was led to believe she could make a few thousand euros for several months’ work — about a year’s earnings in Morocco. Instead, she is now stranded in Spain, awaiting trial after joining nine other women from the same farm, Doñaña 1998 d’Almonte, who have filed lawsuits stemming from events there, including accusations of sexual harassment and assault, rape, human trafficking and several labor violations.

Like other women interviewed for this article, the young mother asked that she be identified only by her initials, L.H., for fear of how spouses, family members and others would react when the article is republished in Arabic, as happens with most Times articles on Morocco. The husbands of some of the women, including L.H., have already filed for divorce.

The women said they often had little choice but to endure abuse, and experts agree.

“They are put in a situation where they are deprived of resources, and their sexuality becomes one way for them to survive,” said Emmanuelle Hellio, a sociologist who has chronicled conditions on the farms. “Sexism and racism fabricate situations in which they cannot complain and power relations make things particularly difficult to denounce.”

L.H. said her boss started sexually harassing her soon after her arrival. He pressured her to have sex, promising her a better life and working conditions.

When she resisted “he started forcing me to work harder,” she said, trying to soothe her baby girl, who was born in Spain. “The other girls would help me when it would get too hard for me on the field.”

Now, she lives with the other women in a location she asked to keep confidential, awaiting trial.

“I feel depressed and I am scared to look for work,” she says.

Strawberries are called red gold in Spain, the largest exporter of the fruit in Europe, where they are the basis of a $650 million industry. Andalusia, where the women worked, produces 80 percent of Spain’s strawberries.

Under a bilateral agreement signed in 2001, thousands of Moroccan women labor from April to June under sprawling plastic greenhouses to cultivate and harvest the fruit. The agreement specifies that the seasonal workers must come from the countryside, where poverty and unemployment are rampant, and must be mothers, so they want to return home, which most do.

It was seen as a win-win deal: an earning opportunity for the poor Moroccans, which gave Spanish farmers much-needed low-cost labor.

For years, academic researchers and activists have complained about the working conditions at the isolated farms, but the authorities in Spain and Morocco have taken little or no action, officials with local labor unions said.

But over a year ago, the 10 women decided to speak up, knowing they risked losing everything, including the respect and support of their conservative families. They are now paying that price, and would have been crushed long ago if not for the support of unions, activists and online fund-raising.

In addition to the divorces, many of the women said they have been shamed and blamed by some family members and neighbors in Morocco. Many say they suffer from severe panic attacks. During interviews, some cried while others screamed in rage.

The first to speak up was H.H., 37, who said she decided she could no longer endure in silence the harsh working conditions and widespread culture of sexual harassment and even rape at the farm.

“I felt like a slave. Like an animal,” she said during in an interview. “They brought us to exploit us and then to send us back. I wish I drowned in the sea and died before arriving in Spain.”

A mother of two, she had worked as a sports trainer back home and enrolled in the farm program after seeing women return to Morocco with $3,500 in savings — more than they could make in a year at home. She and the other women say they were promised many things, like living just four to a room, with a kitchen and a washing machine.

Instead, she found herself in a dusty and overcrowded room with five other women, hiding her food and clothes under her mattress and covering the open windows with cardboard to ward off mosquitoes. Without the training she had been promised, she was slow at first, and others had to help her catch up so she would not be denied work.

Over time, she became fed up with working long hours without bathroom breaks, and of having to be in the good graces of the managers for enough work to buy food, let alone save. She was not assaulted, she said, but was appalled by what others went through. She said abortions were routine, many of them following sexual coercion.

She said the women had become inured to the abuse, and local activists said that anyone who complained was immediately sent back to Morocco.

That’s precisely what happened after H.H. sought help from a local labor union and lawyers. When the lawyers arrived at the farm on May 31, 2018, a group of women started sharing their concerns, all speaking at the same time in Arabic.

The activists asked them to write a list of names and complaints. H.H. left with the lawyers, but three days later, she said, the women on the list — more than 100 — were forced into buses and sent back to Morocco, some say without pay they were owed.

Nine women managed to escape, going over and under fences because the main metal gate was locked, ripping their clothes and running in the forest as they found their way to Almonte, a few miles away.

“I had heard stories before but we all thought they were lies until we lived it ourselves,” one of them said. “We realized that when people speak up, they find ways to shut them up.” The nine women joined H.H. in the lawsuit.

While their suits are rare, they are not without precedent. In 2014, a court in Huelva, Spain, found three men guilty of an “offense against moral integrity and sexual harassment.” Their victims were Moroccan women who worked for them in 2009. An article in El País in 2010, “Victims of the Red Gold,” documented a series of sexual allegations by Polish and Moroccan workers.

In response to criticism in the news media last fall, the Spanish government promised to implement safeguards for this season, and the Moroccan minister of labor has also promised improved conditions. But the workers and unions say little or nothing has changed.

Moroccan officials, including the minister of labor and the ambassador in Madrid, Spanish officials, and several representatives of farming associations, declined to comment for this article, as did the owner of Doñaña 1998 d’Almonte.

“Our work stops in Tangier — beyond, it becomes a Spanish affair,” Noureddine Benkhalil, a manager at ANAPEC, the agency that recruits the women in Morocco, told a local TV network last year.

In an email, a commission spokeswoman at the European Union said that it did not tolerate labor exploitation but said Spain was responsible for addressing the issue.

The women say they are determined to see their cases through to the end. The initial whistle-blower, H.H., tries to keep spirits up. Whenever one of the women breaks down, she reminds her that it was their duty to speak so that others could work on these contracts without fear.

“I will never let it go,” H.H. said. “I already lost everything. I have nothing to lose. I will fight until I die.”