Guest Workers Revisited Moroccan Immigrants, Spanish Strawberries and Europe's Future

It used to be that residents of southern Spain would head to Germany as guest workers. Now, the region hosts guest workers of its own -- from Morocco. The program may become a model for migrant labor across the European Union.
Von Daniela Gerson

Strawberry fields reach as far as the eye can see in this southeastern corner of Spain. But it hasn't always been so. When Antonio Martin González was born, this region around the small town of Cartaya was mostly barren -- and so poor his father was forced to leave in order to support his family. For 11 years in the 1960s and 70s, the elder González labored as a guest worker at a German metalworking factory, spending just six weeks at home each year.

Four decades later, the tables have turned. Now it's strawberry farmer Antonio Martin who employs the migrant labor. His preference: Moroccan mothers, who are fit and under 40. And this time things are supposed to be different. This time, the guest workers are supposed to go home.

“We don’t take women without children because we run the risk they’ll run away, that they will remain in Spain and not return to Morocco,” González says.

González isn't the only one concerned about his workers staying on at the end of the season. He is at the forefront of a European Union initiative designed to welcome seasonal workers to pick the now ripe berries -- and to make sure they leave in June once there are no more berries left to pick. And the program may soon be expanded. Next week, European Commission Vice President Franco Frattini will begin promoting what he calls “circular migration” or “mobility packages,” encouraging other European states to adopt the Spain-Morocco model.

A 21st century revival

“Given the demographic trend Europe will need more migrants, more foreign workers, we will need to manage migration,” Frattini said at a Minister’s meeting in Potsdam, located just outside of Berlin, on Thursday. “We need seasonal workers, but seasonal workers are for a season, for a temporary period of time. Think of agriculture, think of tourism.”

But that's not the EU's only concern. With more and more Africans risking their lives to make it to Europe, the continent is looking for ways to provide legal channels.

In promoting the mobility packages -- which will also include multi-year visas for highly skilled workers such as Indian technicians or African scientists -- Europe is making the first moves to expand legal migration as a block. After most European governments shut down so-called "guest-worker" programs in the 1970s, the continent -- from Germany's successful program welcoming Polish asparagus pickers to Moroccan strawberry pickers in southern Spain -- is now experiencing a 21st century revival, says University of California at Davis agricultural economist Philip Martin. But there's a difference, he says. This time, the new programs aim not only to provide labor but also to control illegal migration.

In Huleva, the Spanish province on the Gulf of Cádiz where Cartaya is located, Moroccan mothers on temporary agricultural visas have more than tripled over the past year for a total of 5,500. Help has come from EU support in the form of a €1.2 million grant to foster the Morocco-Cartaya partnership. The aim is to create a model of controlled migration through which both countries benefit from the ebb and flow of legal labor.

So far, however, the current has not been exactly “circular.” Previously, more than half of the Moroccan women harvesting in Spain overstayed their visas. It is a problem which has torpedoed many a guest worker program in the past, and typically results in permanent migration. But, Martin believes, there is one way to make sure laborers go back: workers should have a spouse and children back home, and there should be a financial incentive for returning.

Not one of the mothers has run away

This year Cartaya put these principals into practice. Not only were only married women with children selected, but -- if they fulfilled their contracts -- they were also guaranteed a job during the next harvesting season. Two thirds of the way through the season, González boasts proudly that not one of the mothers has run away from his farm.

The Socialist mayor of this town of 17,600, Juan Antonio Millán, likes to call this “ethical migration,” contrasting it to the once widespread illegal labor in the area. Tensions peaked in 2000, when domestic sources had been exhausted for the newly booming strawberry and citrus production and undocumented Moroccan immigrants were filling the void. When a wave of xenophobia flared, the mayor called a meeting. "'We want the foreigners to come to Cartaya in the same way the Spanish went to Germany,’” Millán recalls being told by town residents. "'That way they can come with a contract. They can have a dignified life.’”

That year the first 600 Polish workers were given temporary visas. This season 32,000 such workers from EU members Romania and Poland as well as guest workers from Morocco were employed. And the change is obvious. Twice a day, a procession of women in rubber work boots trudges past the gleaming town square. Evening begins when the migrants -- dressed in flowing Arab gowns or midriff tops and tight jeans -- emerge to shop at halal butchers and discount supermarkets, or flirt along the town’s main drag. The elderly Spanish men sitting on town benches hardly notice.

Recently, on an unseasonably hot spring day at González's farm, dozens of women were bent low over the strawberry plants. A few sang in Arabic and a Berber language as they worked. A Lithuanian woman kept her eye on things, and collected the full boxes. At the mid-morning break, the lone Spanish worker sat alone, headphones on. The rest were Moroccan.

"We Have to Think About Other Countries"

Gonzalez prefers it this way. While Eastern Europeans are more popular among the locals, González believes the North African workers have a cultural advantage. “Any business owner wants people who will get up early, work all day, that don’t smoke, don’t drink don’t go to the discotheque,” he says.

And, he might have added, managers like workers who are content with their lot. Prior to the new program -- with many staying in Spain illegally -- that was not always the case. Five years ago, at 17, Zohra Oualiddouche left her village in the Atlas Mountains, where she said the €3 a day she made in the fields was hardly enough to feed her family. When she was offered the chance to pay thousands for an unlimited Spanish visa and a job on González's farm, she jumped at it. Soon, though, she realized she had been conned, but stayed on illegally anyway and ended up cleaning houses for €300 a month in Portugal.

Now, Oualiddouche's life seems like the immigrant dream. González sponsored her for legal status; she can visit her family in the off-season; and her fiancée, a Moroccan man she met in the strawberry fields, recently bought a used Mercedes that they use to drive to Spanish classes.

"My husband is going crazy"

But one day after work, over a communal meal with a half-dozen men from her town, she said life is not really better for her in Spain than in Morocco. The program with the mothers, she believes, is a better arrangement. If she’d had housing and travel covered as they do, she never would have stayed. “This is better because they come for free, without money without anything,” she says.

Some of the mothers, however, complained their arrangement was far from ethical. In the pinewoods between the town and the beach, more than 1,000 workers live in a former fire fighting camp, known as “House of the Cat.” Saida Zwin, a middle-aged mother of four, is on her third season picking strawberries, but is not satisfied with her temporary status. Speaking in Arabic through a translator, she says, “My husband is going crazy, left all alone.”

González empathizes, to a point. Separation is difficult, but he says the women make 10 times what they would have earned in Morocco. Indeed, he is convinced he is playing a part in making migrants lives better, and advocates the expansion of the program as a way to stop illegal immigration. With workers in the new EU countries choosing other places with higher wages, he believes it is crucial to continue developing such relationships. “We have to think about Senegal," he says. “We have to think about other countries in Africa, or the Ukraine.”

Daniela Gerson is a German Chancellor Scholar from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation

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