What are labor and working conditions like for Lleida's fruit pickers?

A farmer, an activist, and a seasonal worker discuss the situation in western Catalonia

Two seasonal workers on a peach farm in Torres de Segre, July 6, 2020 (by Salvador Miret)
Two seasonal workers on a peach farm in Torres de Segre, July 6, 2020 (by Salvador Miret) / Cristina Tomàs White

Cristina Tomàs White | Barcelona

July 31, 2021 05:04 PM

A year ago, all eyes were on Lleida. One of the areas first hit by a summer resurgence of Covid-19 cases, around 200 fruit pickers made headlines for sleeping rough in the western Catalan city - that is, until football star Keita Baldé stepped in to pay for them to stay at a hotel.

And as the death of George Floyd set off protests all over the globe, including Catalonia, local activists stressed the importance of being aware of what’s happening here too.

Are things any better this year, though? To an extent - but just how much better depends on who you ask.

Jaume Pedrós, farmer: 'They should be putting the blame on the government'

Every year, 30 to 35,000 seasonal workers come to the Lleida area, Jaume Pedrós of the Unió de Pagesos farmers union explains. Last year farmers feared more stringent travel restrictions would keep the workers they needed away - but their repeated calls for workers ended up having the effect of attracting far more people than needed.

This year, however, adverse weather conditions have brought crop yields down and only some 25,000 people are needed this season, translating into fewer people traveling to Lleida in search of work and fewer homeless people trying to make ends meet in the fields.

In charge of the farmers union's policies regarding seasonal workers, Pedrós resents what he calls unfounded accusations of exploitation. Not only is he adamant that undocumented workers are never hired by the union’s farmers, but he cites the few labor infringement fines that have been handed out as proof that everything is done by the book.

"As farmers, we cannot and do not give people without work permits jobs," he says. "Only 1% to 2% were fined last year for labor violations."

According to him, groups like Fruita and Justícia Social, which defends seasonal workers' rights, are blowing the issue out of proportion: "They put the blame on us when what they should be doing is putting it on both the Spanish and Catalan governments."

Llibert Reixach, Fruita amb Justícia Social: 'Lleida is Catalonia’s far west'

Llibert Reixach is one of the many passionate members of Fruita amb Justícia Social.

And he also has a long list of complaints. "Lleida is Catalonia’s far west, its forgotten area," Reixach laments. "If this were happening anywhere close to Barcelona it would have come to the fore much earlier. This has been going on for over 20 years but nobody cared."

Yes, many seasonal workers have been able to get vaccinated. But Covid-19 isn’t always their top health concern, Reixach explains, especially after working long hours under the sun and worrying about where to spend the night.

According to Reixach, it’s not only the undocumented who are forced to work and live in precarious condtions: "Over 60% those housed in the shelter the local council set up for seasonal workers in the Lleida pavilion this year are actually not undocumented."

And while this pavilion, which only opens at night, may have helped to alleviate housing distress for some, Reixach believes that paying for it with public money lets employers off the hook, especially when the labor agreement clearly states that they need to house fruit pickers who live more than 75 km away from their place of employment.

Serigne Mamadou, seasonal worker: 'I am constantly fighting for migrants' rights'

Serigne Mamadou, a seasonal worker from Senegal, laughs when asked about the labor agreement Reixach makes mention of. "What labor agreement?," he says. "Nothing is being respected here."

Like many other of Lleida's workers, Mamadou travels around Spain depending on what is in season. "There are no longer any Spaniards working the fields. It's all immigrants," he says.

A vocal opponent of the far-right and anti-immigrant Vox party - "They use us whenever anything goes wrong in Spain" - he has become known over the past few years for his video denunciations of the party as well as a staunch defender of migrant workers' rights.

Conditions are bad all around, Mamadou argues, but they’re particularly egregious when it comes to those without work permits: sometimes farmers make them work up to 12 hours instead of 8. And there are also times they’re not paid at all.

"If they report it they might get deported," Mamadou explains. Fear of being forced to leave is enough to keep most people in this situation quiet.

In his view, things in Lleida have improved this year, somewhat, thanks to the pavilion the council set up for some workers to sleep in. But this doesn't put an end to all other problems. Mamadou's solution? Papers for the undocumented, labor rights and support to those who need it the most.

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