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Locked down, locked in and locked out: The forbidden fruits of female labour

This essay explores the role of gender in the exploitation of agricultural workers in Southern Spain.

December 2021

This is an edited version of an essay by Jessica El Mal, from the Department of Media, Communications and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. In it she explores the role of gender in the exploitation of agricultural workers in Southern Spain. She has also produced an audio piece for Sheffield Documentary Festival, which features some of the voices of the workers which is available on the SheffDocFest website.

This work also provides valuable insights for Ethical Consumer's own campaign to press UK supermarkets for agricultural workers’ rights in southern Spain.

Seasonal workers and Spain - historical context

During the Franco-Spanish Protectorate of 1912-1956 (Besenyo, 2009) cultural and economic ties were made between Morocco and Europe which still exist today through the ongoing legacies of colonialism. Historically, informal seasonal workers travelled from Morocco to Spain to pick fruit during the harvest (Odesso, 2016). However, Spain’s entry to the EU in 1986 forced visa restrictions on Moroccans by the 1990s.

Huelva, a province in southern Spain, is the country's top agricultural province, part of a globalized agri-food chain managed by multinationals and commercial distributors (Women’s Link International, 2019). Strawberries are so valuable to the economy of this area that they are nicknamed ‘Spain’s red gold’ (Meseguer, D, Altimira, M, Quique, B and Tosco, P, 2020).

In order to meet high demand for exported fruit while maintaining high profit margins, after the drop in seasonal migrants due to EU migration policies, the farming industry began advertising for seasonal workers in their countries of origin (notably in Morocco and Eastern Europe), and almost exclusively recruited women.

Since the 2000s, it is reported that the main requirements for recruitment are that the candidate is female, between the age of 18-40, and be mothers to young children (Marchetti and Salieh, 2017). This has resulted in the highly labour-intensive industry of strawberry picking being a highly feminized, migrant workforce (Women’s Link International, 2019), with up to 19,000 migrant workers in Spain per year (Saez, 2019).

The area already had claims of human rights abuses (Carlile, 2020), sexual assault and exploitation (Lawrence, 2011, ANSA, 2018, Alami, 2019, Kelly, 2019). Since the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation is reported to have become even worse, with claims of unsanitary conditions and further exploitation (Borges, 2020, Grant, 2020).

Germany, France and the UK are among the highest consumers of the 340,000 tonnes of strawberries exported from Huelva each year, which exposes the global powers of supply and demand for both commodities and labour. This makes the UK market and consumers complicit in the exploitation.

Gender, care and the (female) body

The EU’s visa restrictions in the 1990s were the beginning of the highly feminized approach to attracting migrant workers, which saw European multinationals increasingly recruiting temporary workers that were young mothers as assurance that they return home at the end of the season (Paciello et al. 2016). I argue that the actual reasons for the feminization of this migrant workforce go much further than merely wanting assurance that they will return home. These reasons also go beyond not wanting to risk the vilified Muslim male overstaying his visa (Marchetti and Salieh, 2017).

In one discussion on the devaluation of female labour in fruit and vegetable packaging plants in Spanish Mediterranean agriculture (Castro, Gadea and Reigada, 2019), discourses on delicacy provide one justification for the feminization of the workforce.

One head of a strawberry co-operative in Huelva discussed a difference in sensitivity in the hands of men and women to justify the division of labour. This can be read as a prime example of the naturalization of social hierarchies which feminist political theory highlights (Mohanty, 2005), whereby gender hierarchies are reasoned as an innate or biological difference. In reality, however, the harvesting, punneting and packaging of fruit that is mostly carried out by women, is extremely labour intensive and requires lots of patience and hardiness. Despite that, by using discourses of docility and softness the industry is able to define the work as ‘feminine’ (opposed to the ‘masculine’ task of driving pallet jacks for example), and thus justify even lower pay (Castro, Gadea and Reigada, 2019) by valuing the work as unskilled.

So it can be deduced that another reason for recruiting a female migrant workforce is to pay them even less than they would migrant men. This is a process of feminization as devaluation, which is well written on especially in relation to domestic work, (FRA, 2018, Barker, 2005, Anderson, 2000), showing up in a highly physical, un-domestic setting.

When considering feminization as it intersects with racialization, a similar ‘natural’ justification is offered, with it being noted (Khachani, 2011, p. 8) that Huelva bosses prefer Moroccan women workers for being more ‘docile’ and ‘submissive’ over women from other countries. While this is reminiscent of Orientalist ideologies regarding Muslim women as oppressed (Said, 1990), rather than as a genuine portrayal of opinions on Moroccan women, I argue that this is also a consequence of economic reality. As well as being more likely to return home, these companies know that mothers of young children, from rural north Morocco where they recruit, are likely to be living in poverty. Knowing that the worker has a mouth to feed and that the strawberry picking job is likely to be the only source of income for the family creates such a huge imbalance of power in the hands of the employer.

One interviewee in the Castro, Gadea and Reigada article describes accepting the dire working conditions and blames herself - herself and necessity (Lola, 2019 in Castro, Gadea and Reigada, 2019). Thus, another reason for a feminized workforce of mothers is to ensure how much the worker needs the job, and as such how much she will be willing to accept.

It is noted that the corporations also prefer migrant to local women as they are housed nearby in industrial bunkers, always ready to be called on to work. Being isolated from their families also makes them less likely to take time off for other commitments such as family illness. This preference isn’t only on the side of the employer, however. Existing social norms in southern Spain see women as mothers first, workers second (Castro, Gadea and Reigada, 2019). While some may take fruit picking jobs for extra money, caring for their children comes as a priority and so Spanish women are unlikely to work outside of school term times (Castro, Gadea and Reigada, 2019).

Here, as outlined in Verges’ text (2020), we see the globalized, capitalist, racialized and feminized flow of care which always flows towards the west. While fruit is vital to maintain the white, healthy bourgeois body (in addition to the continued accumulation of wealth for corporations) the Huelva strawberry workers are noted to live on a cocktail of Nurofen for the pain of working and relaxants to get to sleep (Castro, Gadea and Reigada, 2019). While the Spanish women choose to not work in order to care for their children, who cares for the young children it is necessary to have waiting at home in Morocco to be invited as a migrant worker? Thus, this further exposes the hierarchies of care within cultivation, and the gender distinctions which are also made within racial capitalism.

The female body

The cocktail of Nurofen and sleeping pills which the workers note living on brings me to the next point: the (female) body. As has been mentioned, the work is laborious, exploitative and there are many claims of sexual assault, placing this issue very much within the racialized, female body.

Firstly, the farms are often far from town which geographically isolates the women from society; many are forced to live in dirty shipping containers in close proximity, with many women often sharing one bathroom (Kelly, 2019). Others note that, mostly for undocumented workers, the living quarters have no water or electricity (Martin, 2020). Women have been coming forward to report sexual abuse for years, ranging from reports of coerdion, trafficking and forced prostitution to sexual harassment and degrading treatment dating back to 2014 (Alami, 2014).

Within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the conditions and safety of the female body becomes even more critical. A healthy body, with any pre-existing conditions being well managed, kept at a safe distance from others is vital for surviving the virus. In every respect, these conditions are nowhere near the reality for the strawberry pickers at Huelva.

We can also understand this process of control - control over the body - as an exertion of 'biopower'. Foucault distinguished how formerly, sovereign power functioned by taking life and letting others live (for example capital punishment) whereas the current state of bio-political power allows life, or disallows it to the point of death (Foucault, 1982). Here the contrast between taking life and disallowing life to the point of death is an important distinction. The power to disallow life, for example through poor and unsanitary working and living conditions, by inflicting pain and intrusions, may undoubtedly be taking the body to the point of death. Even before the very real threat of Covid-19, many articles about Huelva include suicidal quotes from their interviewees, which I am choosing not to reference out of respect for the women involved. In this case, as with other forms of biopower, the disallowing of life to the point of death is a slower, less spectacular, more subtle form of power, and thus accountability is more easily escaped.

Two people clasping hands

Solidarity and Resistance

In their introduction to Sovereign Bodies: Citizens, Migrants and States in the Postcolonial World Hansen and Steputat explain how the human body and ‘bare life’ is not only the place where sovereignty enforces its power, but is also the place it ‘encounters the most stubborn resistance’ (Hansen and Steputat, 2005, p11). This is to remind us that although the conditions of migrants - in particular undocumented migrants acribed to Agenben’s ‘bare life’ status - are abominable under the current system, they are not passive objects.

This is also true for the situation at Huelva, and forms of resistance and solidarity exist amongst the women there. There are reports of how the women support each other, for instance, there are reports of women who protect newly arrived workers from the sexual assaults of the bosses (Kelly, 2019) and help the women who are being punished for refusing sexual activities by providing water (when showers or drinking water is being withheld from them as a form of punishment) and helping with the extra workload they have to endure (ANSA, 2018). These acts of solidarity are not necessarily within a western framework, which often promotes labour strikes or speaking out, but they show a lateral, feminine solidarity against the oppressor.

Banu Bargu theorizes a case for the weaponization of the body, as a form of resistance and an argument to explain how, when biopolitics and sovereignty converge to control life itself (biosovereignty), life and the body becomes the site of resistance (Bargu, 2014). While the case of Huelva is different to that of the Turkish prisons Bargu uses to explain her analysis, I argue that the choice to not engage in self-destructive practices like starving or self-immolation, what Bargu terms necroresistace (Bargu, 2014, p27), is inexorably linked to both gender and the recruitment process.

Being mothers of young children from poor communities, these workers know that to self-harm or to risk death is to harm their child. And I argue that this is precisely one of the reasons why motherhood is a prerequisite of employment: to prevent any kind of strike (including labour). But this by no means renders mothers unable to resist. As I explained earlier, the resistance appears laterally between women. It appears in the sharing of the Nurofen, in the warnings of predators approaching, in their protection and care for one another. Although I outlined earlier the exploitative nature of care work across globalized flows, here in the hyper-locality of the workers, to care is an act of solidarity and resistance.

Another, more organised form of resistance comes in the form of the Jornales de Huelvas en Lucha - who describe themselves as a feminist, anti-racist collective of day labourers in the Huelva region (Jornales de Huelvas en Lucha, 2021). They began by posting videos on Facebook of workers speaking about the conditions to raise awareness (keeping identity hidden however) and have now expanded to not only expose the conditions online, but also spread awareness about workers' rights within the farms, organise petitions, marches and online campaigns.

A recent campaign which saw lots of traction was the hashtag #ComeConDerechos which translates to ‘eat with rights’. Acknowledging the popularity of healthy eating and vegan movements in Spain, the collective started the hashtag to spread awareness and have had Spanish celebrities join the movement. By using social media and new technology such as videos and hashtags, the movement is able to simultaneously transit local and global networks with capability for spontaneity (e.g. quick reactions, comments or live posting), which traditional forms of organising are less good at. Manuel Castells describes these as attributes of successful online organising (Castelles, 2013).

Women’s Link International also run campaigns which are characterized by research reports and legal battles to gain justice. They took action to represent four Moroccan women who suffered sexual assault and harassment from a field manager. The women first reported the crime, then filed official complaints with an employment tribunal and the labour inspector before Women’s Link International lawyers took on their case as legal representatives. Criminal proceedings are still awaiting trial at the Court of Moguer (Valero, 2019). This is not uncommon. While there are lots of articles outlining different criminal cases, I could find no references of any outcomes online, except that three charges out of ten against company Donana 1998 S.L had been rejected and appealed to the supreme court (Surt, 2020). Any claimant who leaves Spain before an outcome gets their case thrown out, and so an undefined number of whistleblowers are caught in a bind of being locked in Spain for legal proceedings whilst not legally able to claim settlement due to their visas being void upon expulsion from their jobs.

For example, when 10 whistleblowers went to the Guardia Civil (police), they were expelled from their jobs and living quarters (some without pay they were owed), unable to leave Spain until their case had been to court, but unable to work due to their visas expiring (Kelly, 2019). When the whole system (of borders, of citizenship, of capitalism) has been set up to not only allow the situation but also to create it, as Hannah Arendt (2004 and 2018) points out, any claims to human rights are null. The system is not equipped, nor willing, to rectify it.

The digitized form of resistance of Jornales de Huelvas en Lucha allows anonymity. However, legal battles require speaking out, whereupon women may get sent back to Morocco on buses without pay, and the people who escape the expulsion are faced with loss of job and legal status in Spain. Furthermore, other consequences can include divorce or ostracization from family and society back home (Lawrence, 2011, ANSA, 2018, Alami, 2019, Kelly, 2019). When the stakes are so high, is it really ethical for resistance to require a face and a name? I argue that there isn't a ‘one size fits all’ approach to feminism nor resistance. In an interview with Epoch magazine, Verges outlines western obsessions with visibility as a way to give a movement a marketable spectacularism. She argues that women can find silence, withdrawal and invisibility as a site of resistance (Verges, 2020). Though this may be a pessimistic view, due to the structures explored in this essay, the lack of outcomes for, and pain endured as a result of, the women coming forward, it doesn’t appear that the current Spanish legal system nor EU structures of human rights, can or wants to provide justice. For example, some charges have already been reduced from rape to sexual harassment, and charges of sex trafficking have not even been entertained (Kelly, 2019).

For this reason, the work of Jornales de Huelvas en Lucha shows promise. Exposing and raising awareness while maintaining anonymity of women allows the individual to exercise resistance whilst maintaining invisibility and, through their hashtag campaigns for example, puts the work of achieving social change on the western subject rather than the whistleblower. Through both the collective solidarity actions of those in positions of privilege, and the continued resistance of women in the fields, we can hope that conditions might improve.


Even this season, women in Morocco protest at the port for being unable to board the ferry to Algeciras, the pandemic forbidding any travel out of Morocco or into Spain. Where there is necessity, a conjunction where mouths to feed meets lack of opportunity, there will always be women willing to travel for work. A necessity created by global flows of power, resources and capital. To refer back to the quote I used at the start of this essay ‘migration is globalization from below’ (Wark, 2001. p19).

The ongoing legacies of colonialism and the greed of capitalism function to create a situation which upon the onset of the global pandemic became more deadly. The system stops for nothing. Punnets of strawberries have remained on the shelves of my local Morrisons throughout the pandemic. But at what, or whose, expense? The answer is clear.

With forms of resistance materialising locally and internationally - the caring, sharing and solidarity locally and the international work of collectives - there is some hope for improvement. However until the capitalist mode of production within agriculture (or in fact the world) is completely reformed, the law, visas and borders continue to enable a situation where exploitation is the norm.

According to Francis Verges in an interview with the International Curators Forum:

‘There is no capitalism without constant daily violence, insidious, cunning or open, cracking the head, suffocating, killing or slowly destroying the body and the psyche.’ (Verges, 2020).


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