Red Gold: Inside Southern Spain’s Unsustainable Fruit Industry

by Jessy Diamba

The journey to Spain from Senegal is one memory Seydou Diop would like to forget.

This trek for a better life led him to travel through the scorching deserts of northern Africa, across the dangerous waters of the Mediterranean Sea, and to the Spanish town of Lepe, located in its southern Huelva province. There, he found work laboring as a temporero, or seasonal worker, within Spain’s multimillion-euro agricultural industry.

Little did he know of the treatment he and thousands of other African men and women would encounter when reaching Europe, and tending to its fields, from sunup to sundown.

“They don’t care. They don’t care, and they know perfectly how essential we are to this country,” he said. “If not, they would do things another way, no?”

Huelva, part of Spain’s southwestern autonomous region of Andalusia, has become the main strawberry and blueberry producing and exporting region in all of Europe. In the 2021-2022 harvest season, Andalusia produced 29% of all strawberries and 33% of all blueberries consumed in the European Union, with both exports covering almost 11,000 hectares and raking in more than €960 million, according to the region’s Observatory of Prices and Markets.

This has led to strawberries and other red fruits being locally referred to as “red gold.”

Despite the economic benefits, seasonal workers in Spain continue to live in a situation called the fourth world, described by the political theorist Achille Mbembe as “that population belonging to our first world which, nevertheless, lives in a state of absolute precarity; outcasts who haven’t been expelled from the welfare state, but who occupy its margins; invisible beings who live in non-places.”

“When the heat hits, it’s very, very, very hard,” said Babacar Dame, who previously worked in Lepe and in neighboring Ayamonte. The typical six-hour shift allows for a 30-minute break after the first four hours worked, but employees can slave away outside for eight hours or more during peak fruit production from April to June.

Many men and women employed in the sector live in chabolas, or shacks, beside the fields, while others can be found living on the street, in unsanitary conditions. And while the workforce is more African than European, the latter ethnic group gets paid better, and can often be working the “good parts” of the land compared to the former, he said.

Dame believes the living and working conditions would be different if the laborers were Spanish and not African and Eastern European. “There’s a lot of sun, and the fruits need sun to be picked.” 

The current situation for laborers in southern Spain is a result of the country’s insertion—along with other Mediterranean countries like Italy—into the larger globalized distribution chain, which over the past few decades has brought with it the phenomenon of transnational immigration, said Soledad Castillero, a researcher at the University of Grenada who specializes in migration studies.

Up until the 1990s, the traditional crops grown in Huelva were olives and grapes, as in other parts of Andalusia. Today, the entire area directly or indirectly depends on the cultivation of red fruits.

“The intensive agriculture production model, in terms of agro-exporters, isn’t sustainable for the environment nor for the workers and producers,” she said, “because this intensive form of production has caused prices to fall, and food to lose value.”

The employers of seasonal workers receive low returns on their produce, making it increasingly difficult to cover production costs. This in turn affects worker salaries farther down the production chain, and the trend is likely to continue with climate change, Castillero added, with hotter temperatures causing shorter harvest seasons, and less work. Despite exporting 6.5 million tons of produce in 2020, Andalusia has the second highest unemployment rate in the entire peninsula, at 23.8%. 

“They can’t have long-term employment that allows them to have stability in the area, and to develop their lives in a fixed place,” she said.

“Southern Europe produces food. Italy and Spain alone produce more than 40% of Europe’s food,” said Yoan Molinero, a researcher at the University of Comillas who specializes in migrant labor worldwide, with a focus on southern Europe.

This means that neighboring countries like Germany and the Netherlands that import produce can focus their economies on manufacturing instead of agriculture, benefitting the European single market, because food is fundamental to sustaining societies, he said.

But while agriculture is more important than manufacturing, it isn’t as profitable. EU subsidies and cheap labor are necessary to keep fruit prices low, he said, leading to Spain’s reliance on more and more seasonal workers, all the while maintaining precarious working and living conditions. Spaniards would rather live off unemployment than pick fruit every day, under 45 degrees Celsius and for €5 an hour.

“If you want to produce enough food for the European Union to be food sovereign,” said Molinero, “you need a huge workforce, thousands and thousands of workers.”

In 2000, the Spanish government developed a temporary circular migration program called the contratación en orígen (“recruitment in origin”) to formally recruit laborers for the country’s important strawberry industry. Other agricultural sectors continue to hire undocumented workers, leaving many people in dire conditions afraid to speak out.

The immigration policies across European countries have the objective to produce a workforce useful for their national economies, said Gennaro Avallone, a professor at the University of Salerno focusing on international migration and agricultural labor.

“The respect of human rights in Europe is also subject to the economic interests of the states, and of their companies,” he said.

In the case of Huelva, maintaining a model that legally imports workers in a context of unemployment and massive precarity will be difficult, according to Avallone. Spain’s recruitment programs have become virtually irrelevant in recent years, shifting farms’ priorities on hiring many people outside of them, such as undocumented people across Africa and Eastern Europe.  

Industrial agriculture isn’t set to stop anytime soon, and Spanish farms will continue searching for new ways to continue the annual cycle of cheap labor.

“If people can freely move with visas, they can freely move inside the labor market,” Avallone said, “and they can easily flee from unfavorable and exploitative conditions.”