Agriculture – Spain

The exploitation of migrant workers in the ‘Sea of Plastic’

Laura Quintana Soms

Four decades ago, a deserted expanse of Almería in southern Spain was chosen as the site for what would become a vast conurbation of greenhouses, the so-called Sea of Plastic. Today, it is the source of some 3.5 million tonnes of fruit and vegetables annually, with the majority of this crop exported to Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Totalling more than 40,000 hectares, stretching from the coast of the Alborán Sea to the mountainous area of the Alpujarra, this swathe of polythene is visible from space. 

Alongside its plentiful underground water reserves and more than 3,000 hours of sunshine every year, Almería is an ideal location for another reason – its position on the Western Mediterranean migration route between North Africa and Europe. This has provided international companies in the region with a steady supply of cheap labour. With many migrant workers lacking formal documentation, the risk of exploitation, long working hours and inadequate pay is high. 

This is reflected in the deplorable living conditions that many endure on a daily basis. On an official visit in January 2020, then UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, described their living conditions as among the worst he had ever seen. ‘I visited areas I suspect many Spaniards would not recognize as a part of their country,’ he subsequently reported, ‘a shantytown with far worse conditions than a refugee camp, without running water, electricity, or sanitation.’ 

Amina* is 25 years old and from Morocco, like the majority of workers in Almería’s fields. She arrived in Spain almost three years ago, after risking her life to cross the Mediterranean. She left her native country in order to support her family financially and pursue the European dream. But her family, who are proud of her, are unaware of the conditions in which she lives, much worse than in her hometown. 

A shantytown with far worse conditions than a refugee camp, without running water, electricity, or sanitation.

Philip Alston

She decided to move to Almería, because there, someone told her, she could work without papers while waiting the three years required before applying for a residence and work permit. However, she was unaware of the brutal conditions she would have to endure in the meantime. 

Every day, she gets up very early to be among the first at the ‘no contract’ hiring point, usually a roundabout or an industrial neighbourhood, where from 6:30 or 7 a.m. the field managers go to pick up the people they need that day. As she does not know anyone with a good relationship with the managers, she cannot be ‘employed’ directly. No managers have come for days, despite the fact that many men and women have been waiting there every morning. 

When she is lucky enough to be picked, she works for up to 10 hours without rest in the greenhouses, in temperatures that can reach up to 45-50ºC in the summer, picking tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, avocados, melons, kiwis or mangoes. All for a daily wage of €32- 40 per day — far below the minimum wage of €59 — which may take weeks or months to be paid. As a woman, Amina also faces the constant threat of harassment, assault and sexual abuse from locals and other migrants, as well as the risk of not being hired or getting fired if she gets pregnant. Even contracted workers are not always paid for the actual hours worked and may also be denied basic rights such as holidays and rest breaks. 

At the end of the day, Amina always feels extremely tired, and there are days when she even finds it hard to breathe. This is not only on account of the long hours, but also because of the lack of protection when working inside the greenhouses where she inhales chemicals from exposure to pesticides that can cause serious respiratory diseases and cancer. Although the use of pesticides has decreased considerably in recent years, there are still suspected cases of illness and even death while working in greenhouses: in November 2021, for instance, a 43-year-old migrant worker named Omar Mellioui died while fumigating greenhouses at a farm in Las Norias. 

Upon her arrival, Amina tried to rent a room but was repeatedly rejected by local landlords because of her nationality, skin colour or lack of documentation. She was therefore left with no choice but to build a small shack out of wood and plastic waste in the Atochares settlement in Níjar, where thousands of migrants live. Freezing cold in winter and unbearably hot in summer, basic services here are non-existent: every day, Amina has to carry jugs of water to cook, clean and drink. Hazardous gas and electricity connections have resulted in a number of fires that already destroyed other settlements in Níjar. 

The underlying cause of Amina’s precarious situation is her lack of documentation. To work, Amina needs a work and residence permit. To get it, she must obtain a registration document from the town council where she lives and then wait three years without being able to leave Spain, see her family or work and rent somewhere to live legally. But while obtaining this registration is the basis for being able to seek the necessary documentation in the future, the complex administrative requirements surrounding these processes, the difficulty of securing an official appointment and other obstacles mean that many are forced to purchase registrations and contracts illegally. 

Some employers are complicit in this system themselves: on some occasions, field managers participate in these contracts and deduct the costs from the worker’s salary. Local authorities in Almería province, meanwhile, have turned a blind eye over the years to the reality of labour exploitation and illegal working conditions. When Amina has tried to complain to managers who have hired her without papers, they always threaten to notify the police to deport her or they stop calling her. In the Sea of Plastic, there are always others willing to take on the work in her place. 

For three decades, Amina and tens of thousands of migrants like her have been systematically exploited as irregular workers to ensure a flow of cheap and plentiful produce to some of the richest countries in Europe. Although some progress has been made in documenting the situation internationally and improving the conditions of workers in some of the larger agricultural macrocompanies, thanks to the efforts of the union SOC-SAT Almería, much remains to be done. 

*‘Amina’ is a composite of several women’s testimonies: the experiences described here are illustrative of the challenges faced by innumerable migrant workers in the area.

Photo: A worker fired by a fruit company because of a claim for safety measures sits on a bed in the Sea of Plastic. Credit: Ofelia de Pablo and Javier Zurita