Barcelona, Spain
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Spain must urgently protect thousands of women brought over from Morocco as essential workers to pick strawberries during the new coronavirus pandemic in abysmal conditions and without basic hygiene, a United Nations rapporteur said on Wednesday. 

About 3,000 Moroccan women travel to Spain, which provides more than half of Europe's fruit and vegetables, to harvest strawberries in southern Huelva province each year, despite decades of complaints of exploitation, unpaid wages and abuse. 

"These workers have been deliberately put at risk during the pandemic," said Olivier De Schutter, who became the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in March.

"Poor housing conditions, overcrowded settlements, poor access to water and sanitation...no ventilation of work spaces...absence of cleaning of any surfaces or objects - this is the most shocking," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.on.

De Schutter said the situation amounted to forced labour, as the migrant women were coerced to work in unsafe conditions that violated international human rights standards and domestic laws.

A spokeswoman for the ministry of labour and social economy said that it was inspecting the working conditions of migrant agricultural workers across Spain, regardless of their country of origin.

"The Inspectorate of Labour and Social Security, an autonomous agency of the Ministry of Labour and Social Economy, has programmed a specific campaign for this year, as with previous years, to check working conditions," she said.

"The Inspectorate applies the regulation for the protection of workers' rights with the forcefulness that the situation requires in each case."

Garden of Europe
Morocco and Spain signed an agreement in 2001, granting women temporary visas to harvest fruit in Spain, promising much higher wages than they could earn at home in north Africa.

"Morocco is very much at fault for not diligently ensuring that the workers' rights are met," De Schutter said, adding that the strawberry pickers in Huelva were "just one example of a widespread phenomenon in Spain".

Last year, 10 Moroccan women filed a lawsuit claiming they had been trafficked, assaulted and exploited while picking strawberries in Huelva. It has yet to reach a verdict.

Eight rights groups lodged an appeal with the UN last month, asking it to investigate the conditions for Moroccan migrants on Spanish farms working without gloves, masks or social distancing protections against COVID-19.

"Many consumers depend on Spain – it really is the garden of Europe – and yet a large proportion of our fruit and vegetables come from workers living in these substandard conditions," said De Schutter, a Belgian legal scholar. 

The women migrants - many of whom had left their children behind in Morocco - systematically did unpaid overtime, yet as seasonal workers were completely powerless, he said. 

"These women are misinformed about what they can expect in Spain. Obviously they don't speak Spanish and they are not able to stand up for their rights as they cannot form unions," De Schutter said. "They are very vulnerable to being exploited."