Striking olive harvest workers in Spain, 2005

Submitted by Steven. on November 23, 2006

Article about the agricultural industry in Spain, and the strike of mostly immigrant olive harvest workers in 2005.

Olive Vibrators, Road Blocks and Striking Gypsies
January 2005. It has been five years since the racist uprisings against the Moroccan workers in the harvest in El Ejido. Since then there has been loads of stuff written about the shitty working and living conditions of the immigrant work force in the food industry in south Spain. In this article therefore, there is only a short overview of the situation today, in order to then report on how one village in the olive region was shaken by a month long strike of day labourers in January 2005. This year many more immigrants have come to this region to work, even though the harvest has been smaller compared to previous years due to the colder weather. At the same time there has been confrontations and strikes by the permanently resident workers because of the increased use of harvest machinery, that undermines their piece work rate and puts their seasonal workplaces in danger. Unions, the state and the bosses try to make these conflicts merely economic, e.g. by getting in writing a minimum price for one kilo harvested using machines in the work contract. At the same time two laws are planned which would change the conditions for the workers: the agricultural subsidies will be reformed, which would also affect the unemployment benefits of the seasonal workers, and the immigration laws will be reformed and only some of the migrants had been promised leave to remain, thereby creating a new level of hierarchy within the labour market. At the end of January there were some large demonstrations by migrants against these reforms.

The Industrial Agricultural Production
The two main sectors in south Spain that characterise the whole society are tourism and agriculture. The distribution of the sparse water reserves, the planned water restrictions and diversions are the basis of a great number of conflicts. In the 2004/05 olive harvest it was clear that the sector itself was a drain on the water supply; the harvest dropped by about a quarter due to the water shortage. The agricultural production is a driving factor in the rapid urbanisation of the land. In the last ten years the amount of land concreted or tarred over has risen by 20 percent - more than double as fast as in the rest of Europe, made up of the hotels and holiday complexes and above all the migration to the cities.

What agriculture there is becoming increasingly mono-cultural. In the region around Jaen one cannot see the ground for all the olive trees, about 50 million of them supply 20 percent of the world’s olive oil. The Region around Huelva is, after the USA, the second largest strawberry producer in the world and in 2001 employed about 55,000 people, amongst them about 10,000 immigrant workers. The sector is strongly monopolised, about 95 percent of the companies belong to the group ‘Freshhuelva’. The Andalusian branch of the agricultural workers union, the SOC, claims that half the total farmed land belongs to about two percent of the land owners and they refer to conditions similar to those in Latin American. As well as the production, the trade is also very monopolised: about three quarters of the harvest is traded by the European large traders; the seedlings come mostly from the Californian agricultural industry; pesticides and the plastic sheets are supplied by a few large firms. One also finds the tendency towards relocation and outsourcing in the agricultural industry: about 80 percent of the 800 strawberry plantations in Morocco are owned by companies from Huelva. In the region around Huelva the size of land taken up with strawberries has shrunk by around 30 percent in the last five years, which does not mean that 30 percent less strawberries were harvested. One main reason for this shift in location are the wage costs; in the strawberry harvest this counts for about 70 percent of the costs.

The plastic sheeting of the green houses or poly tunnels stretch over hundreds of square kilometres, interrupted here and there by factories for packing and further preparation, by workshops for the farming machinery and by the large distribution stations of the freight transport. The olive trees are planted in rows for the use of harvest tractors and vibrating machines, every ten kilometres there are large building complexes of the olive presses. As in every industry the use of machines is dependant on the product, but even more than this on the price of the labour force. But we can say that in the olive harvest the use of harvest machines (the so-called vibrators) is increasing and putting the workers under pressure.

The Immigrants
The last olive harvest would not have been possible with the work of about 8000 migrants. The Spanish officials are constantly playing this off against the fact that there are 22,000 Spanish people registered as unemployed in this region and using this as a reason for Agrarian reform (see below). It is hard to say how many migrants really work in the Spanish agricultural sector. Many are working without official contracts, the CC.OO union says about 30 percent. The figures usually only refer to a specific harvest, but the workers often move with the harvests. The composition has changed in the last two or three years. After the conflicts and strikes by the workers from Maghreb there have been more people employed from eastern Europe. According to the figures published by the SOC for the Huelva region (strawberries) there were 7000 people from eastern Europe working with contracts in 2002 and by 2004 this figure had risen to 20,000. The SOC talk of an average of 15 paid work days every month. Because of this the queues at the NGO food distribution centres grow ever longer. The SOC also register that fact that the many migrants in the area have lead to an acute rise in the prices of daily necessities and rent, which also affects the permanently resident population. The bosses get around the law forbidding piece work contracts by, for example, setting 200 kg of strawberries per day as a standard amount and threatening dismissal for those who drop below this. The Rumanian workers tell of random harassment: during the hiring process the boss selected 200 of the 500 applicants, took away all their papers (work permits, visas, medical certificates), which they had paid about 300 Euros for, mostly on credit, forbid contact between men and women on the farm, controlled the alcohol and regulated bedtimes.

By the beginning of December 2004, i.e. before the beginning of the olive harvest, there were about 5000 migrants in the region. Many were homeless, living in derelict houses or on the street. The hostels were only permitted to open at the beginning of the harvest, so as to avoid strengthening the ‘attraction effect’. Under pressure by the charity organisations and the unions they began to take people in during December. But there were in any case only 650 places. In the press there were reports of many evictions of ‘illegal flats [settlements]’ of Romanian workers.

Many of those looking for work came from Sub-Saharan African countries such as Ghana and Senegal. Even if they do get the minimum wage they can only hope for two months work, about 6 or 7 hours a day, 39 Euros a day. The SOC reports many cases of 12 hour days for 20 Euros a day.

The Immigrant Laws
On particular statistic published in January 2005 shows the growing significance of migrants, no only in agriculture, but in the whole Spanish labour market: around 34 percent of all new workplaces in the first nine months of 2003 were filled by migrants, in totally they make up 4.9 percent of the total workforce. Most of these workplaces were temporary and/or through employment agencies. The migrants mainly come from Morocco and Latin America. Since the ‘regulation of residency’ in January 2005, those where were registered with the authorities before August 2004 and can produce a work contract of over six months become legalised. In the agriculture, gastronomy and hotel sectors a three month contact is more normal. The workers do not apply for their own work and residents permits, the companies do it for them. The government starts from a figure of about 800,000 migrants whose residency could be ‘legalised’ - from a figure of a total of 1.1 million ‘irregular’ residences (which does not include the illegal immigrants). On the 17 January the press published pictures of ‘thousands of migrants’ who slept outside the consulate to apply for the necessary papers (including the criminal record register). On the 7 February 2005, the first day of the ‘regulation’, the companies had submitted requests for residents permits for about 1500 migrants, most of which were disallowed due to missing documents, in Malaga 80 percent!

On the 23 of January there was an amazing demonstration in Almeria against the rehashed migrant laws and for papers for everyone. About 3000 to 4000 people were at the demo, two thirds of them sub-Saharan African (and a handful of Spanish), the rest from north Africa, about 99.9 percent young men. There was an umbrella organisation ‘for unity’, the SOC and the CGT, but apart from usual sticker and placard distribution there did not really have anything to say. The demand was clear and was presented in various slogans and chants: ‘papers for everyone, without limitations or preconditions!’. The demo passed without incident, there was a lot of emphasis on forming chains, and every two hundred meters we sat down on the road. One precondition for the papers seemed to remain, or at least there was the slogan that a passport should be sufficient.

The Agrarian Reforms
The agrarian reforms operate within the subsidies rules of the EU and attempt to solve an astounding contradiction: The rural population is declining, the number of registered unemployed agricultural workers is growing rapidly, at the same time it is getting harder to find Spanish workers for the harvest. Additionally, the period of payments of unemployment benefits is supposed to be linked to the number of days worked per year (previously one received six months money regardless of whether one had worked 35 days or 180 days in the year).

Under the Conservative government, the Socialist Party had taken part in the protests in 2002 against the reform, possibly because many of their strongholds had lost their subsidies. Then in January 2003 the CC.OO and the UGT joined with the government with a proposal that made the preconditions for receiving unemployment benefits even stricter and made it almost impossible for workers under 25 to actually receive it.

The Socialist Party, who came to power in March 2004, only made a few negligible changes to the reforms and did not retract the entire reform, as they had promised. According to SOC the young workers have the most problems to get the number of required work days together and so are often reliant on social aid. At the moment this lies somewhere between 75 and 100 percent of the minimum wage, about 400 to 500 Euros per month. The companies estimate the number of people receiving this social aid at about 120,000 in Andalusia. The SOC says it is 65,000, of whom about 40,000 work in other regions during the harvest.

Although SOC is seen as ‘immigrant friendly’ compared to the ‘anti-immigrant-approach’ of the majority unions (CC.OO and UGT), their official politics looks a bit different. In November 2004 the SOC general secretary suggested the establishment of a so-called ‘local employment commission’ that would then regulate the work force requirements. In this only registered workers would be able to get work, which would exclude thousands of illegal proletarians. He also explained himself clearly as being in agreement that “a worker who refused an offer of work in his region would loose his unemployment benefit”. (from: ABC Sevilla, 25/11/2004). Who ever promises to protect their members from having their work conditions undermined by migrants, of course has to also insure that these members will go to work for those same bad work conditions. Furthermore is the open threat against the many southern Spaniards who work in the harvests and the industries of the north, while claiming unemployment benefit in the South! On the other hand the SOC are giving the call-out for the action on the 28 January 2005 against the reform…

The Strike
Bujalance is a village with 8000 inhabitants on the county road between Jaen and Cordobra. There is no tourism, no sight-seeing attractions, but there are a great many olives. In the main square hang two banners; one saying “keep going, Manolo! Bujalance loves you!”. The day labourers of the olive harvest are on strike, Manolo is the local boss of the CC.OO union and at the moment on hunger strike. The other banner is from the companies and calls for the protection of the only source of tax revenue of the village, the olives. Since 21 December 2004 there have been about 600 to 1000 strikers meeting daily in order to get up to date with the current situation and decide on further courses of action. They are on strike for two main reasons: the increasing mechanisations is destroying their piece work rate and because 200 of them have been sacked due to new subcontracting rules. According to the work contract the rate for a hand picked kilo of olives should be more than the rate for a kilo shaken off by a vibrator, but in practice that is seldom adhered to. The CC.OO demand in writing a minimum price for the vibrator harvested olives. The fact that they are striking in the middle of a world market oil production region, that they are the target of one of the EU wide agricultural reforms and that according to the media are surrounded by thousands of roaming and job-seeking migrants does not seem to be making a big impression on the striking Bujalancers.

21 December 2004: The strike began after a gathering of about 600 seasonal workers, which was called for by the CC.OO and the UGT. The bosses declared the strike illegal, because the work contract was still valid until January 2005.

8 January 2005: The press report an increasingly heated atmosphere in the village. The CC.OO threaten a general strike in Bujalance. About 800 Seasonal workers take part in an assembly.

12 January 2005: There is a general strike in Bujalance. The bosses say that 20 percent took part, the CC.OO say 40 percent and some newspapers say 70 percent. The CC.OO emphasised the participation of the construction sector, particularly the bricklayers. Many of the supermarkets stayed open, teachers went to school, but only half the school children. At this point the companies declared that only 10 percent of the harvest would be gathered in Bujalance.

15 January 2005: Manolo Ramirez starts his hunger strike.

16 January 2005: In many fields, about 50 percent of the harvest was already going off. The trees were not pruned, which would also reduce the total for the following harvest. According to El Pais about 700 bosses, owners of large olive farms and business people demonstrated. The local press puts the count at 400. The claim that they have been threatened by the strikers, that those willing to work are being stopped from doing so, etc. Where there is work going on the olive trees are being ripped out of the ground and the local small firms and businesses have to fear boycotts if they open their businesses. The unionists deny, but some strikers confirm, that they would take their children out of school, if the companies do not give in. The newspapers report that there were leaflets circulated after the general strike in the village denouncing the strikebreaking shops.

17 January 2005: About 100 to 150 young striking Bajalancers occupy the church and churchyard night and day, with the agreement of the priest, in solidarity with the hunger striking unionist.

18 January 2005: The amount of Guardia Civil (military police) in the village has increased three-fold. They protect the small farmers who have decided to continue working on the fields. They leave the village together from the largest co-operative Jesus Nazarero. The large employers declare that they are looking for workers from other regions where the harvest has already ended, The mayor however, demands that they should look for their labour force from within the region, as it states in the work contracts. The union leader threatens intensified actions if a workforce is drafted in from outside.

19 January 2005: About 1000 strikers come to the assembly, where there was no voting or debate. Ramirez declared the end of the church occupation and called for an assembly the next day to be held at the market place, rather than outside the strike breaking co-operative. After the assembly the nearby county road was occupied for about an hour.

21 January 2005: Manolo Ramierz lets it be known that the CC.OO has negotiated a contract: “This is a positive conclusion, not the one that we wanted, but one that can end this conflict”. Part of this contact is a minimum price for the use of the shaking machine of 13 or 14 cents per kilo. He also emphasised the common work contact, in which the labour force should be employed from the village where possible. Manolo called for the workers to vote for the end to the strike, “so that there is once again peace in the village”.

22 January 2005: About 1000 day labourers vote for the end of the strike. There are still some unqualified questions about the contract and it is not stated whether the 200 sacked workers will be reinstated.

Personal Impressions from the 19 and 20 January 2005
On the country roads for a 15 km stretch around Bujalance one sees only one tractor and four people working on the fields. Apart from that one sees quite a few small trucks with three or four passengers inside - seeming to be on the lookout. Actually one does not need to keep an eye out for scabs in all the fields, it is enough to watch the olive presses, industrial plants for the production of olive oil. The work begins and ends there. Of the six presses that I saw in the region, only the smallest was operating. The largest was being watched by the Guardia Civil. It was from here that the small farmers left for work on the 18 January.

In the evening around 1000 people, all Spanish or Gitanos (Spanish Gypsies), many older people and pushchairs, about as many women as men, they seemed to be rather subproletarian than small farmers, many tracksuit bottoms and body warmers, amazingly small people, the atmosphere is familiar and neighbourly. One bloke explained to me that the work contract, i.e. the piece work rate agreement was only valid for this district, in Cordoba, 20 km away a there is a different contract. Then Manolo, the hunger striking CC.OO functionary, spoke. He spoke from the first floor of the town hall and you could not see him. Perhaps this was for some technical reason, but in any case it was a bit weird. First of all he thanked the young people for their role in holding out in the church and churchyard for a few days and nights. The young people themselves came out and received applause. In his second sentence he declared the church action over, but it is not clear why and how it was decided. He thanked everyone for the disciplined and pacifist behaviour during the protests and emphasised, three times, that it should stay pacifist. He said that he would go to Cordoba the next day to negotiate, and he hoped there would be a resolution, although he felt week because of the hunger strike. As a sign of his willingness to negotiate he also changed the location of the next morning’s assembly: not in front of the large co-operative from where the scabs have been leaving for work, as planed, but in front of the town hall again. There was no reaction to this news. At the end his voice became once again militant and forceful and he called on us to hold a demo with him to the main country road and block it. He came out of the town hall and spoke with the only two Guardia Civil police there. On the way to the main road there we no police in sight. All 1000 people went onto the road and every HGV stuck in the resulting traffic jam got an ‘Olé’. This went on for about an hour, nothing really remarkable happened, it got louder at one point when a tractor and trailer appeared at the end of the traffic jam. On the following morning the people met as decreed, not in front of the scabbing Co-operative, but in front of the town hall. So in from the Co-operative loads of jeeps and tractors drove away unhindered, while about 500 people stood around in the cold outside the town hall at nine am, even though the negotiations in Cordoba were not due to start until ten o’clock. Most of them passed the time by reading the paper, there was a double page spread about the street blockade of the day before. There was nothing new in the article, apart from the information that the bosses were convinced that the demo would be going to the Co-operative and had themselves gathered on the site of the oil presses. On bloke said that although it was officially about the piece work rate, actually the real problem was the use of machines, eventually half of the workforce would be disbanded. Along with this came the migrant question. In Bujalance there were hardly any migrants working, in Jaen or Cordoba however, there are quite a lot, and for half the wages. By eleven there was still no statement or news from Cordoba and the first people began to leave.

I found it interesting that ‘Spaniards’ and ‘Gypsies’ had gone on strike together. Otherwise and under different circumstances the situation is quite tense: On the 16 January 2005, i.e. during the strike, there was a demo in Cortagana (5000 inhabitants, further south-west into Andalusia) ‘for security’, after the arrest of two gypsies accused of the murder of a disabled person. About 2000 people took part. At the end of the Demo about 1000 people marched to the gypsy quarter of the town and smashed up cars and houses and threatened people.

More reports on violence during strikes in Spain from January 2005:

* The public prosecutor demands a total of eight years prison for four bus drivers who in March 2003 in the Vizcaya region shot with catapults at busses that were empty except for the driver during a strike.

* Despite the sentencing of a few Basque bus drivers for damage to property they continued with their acts of sabotage: The large company Arriva stated that during a strike near Corunia about 25 busses could not drive due to flat tires.

* At the beginning of February the roadside recovery services for abandoned or crashed vehicles were on strike. In Valencia a scabbing tow crane was dismantled.

See also a contemporary online discussion about the strike

From prol-position news #2, 5/2005