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Hard times force Spaniards back to fields

Workers at a Spanish strawberry farm
More and more Spaniards are returning to agricultural labour as recession bites

By Steve Kingstone
BBC News, Huelva, Spain

A former bricklayer and painter, 35-year-old Andres Rangel Sanchez has traded in his brushes and trowel for a hairnet, a face-mask and a pair of rubber boots.

In what resembles a police forensic search, he and several dozen other seasonal workers sweep through a strawberry field, picking only the ripest, plumpest fruit.

In Huelva, close to Spain's south-western border with Portugal, February equals strawberries.

Andres Rangel Sanchez
In construction, I was earning twice what I make here - but building has simply stopped
Former bricklayer turned fruit picker Andres Rangel Sanchez

A quarter of a million tonnes of the fruit are harvested here annually, with the bulk of the crop exported to Germany, France and Britain.

The workforce is a United Nations of cheap immigrant labour - Senegalese, Moroccans, Romanians, Ukrainians, and Bulgarians - willing to toil in these fields for just 36 euros ($46, 32) a day.

But, as Spain officially enters recession, Andres is one of a growing number of Spaniards who have been forced to join them on the land.

"It's seven years since I worked the fields," he says, "and I think we'll see a lot more Spaniards returning.

"In construction, I was earning twice what I make here - but building has simply stopped, there are no jobs. At least here, I'm guaranteed seven or eight months work."

Others see the same logic. In Huelva's heaving job centre, applicants queue to register for an agricultural employment scheme run by Andalucia's regional government. The chosen recruits will pick strawberries, oranges, onions and asparagus. Well over 80% of applicants are Spaniards.

SPAIN'S ECONOMY IN NUMBERS
Unemployment 13.9%
Unemployment rose 3% last quarter
GDP growth -2% (forecast)
Source: OECD, EU

Their eagerness to take what some regard as a backward step is easily explained. Huelva's unemployment rate is approaching 21% - 50% higher than the national average and more than two-and-a-half times the EU average.

In construction alone, the jobless total has doubled in the space of a year.

Intense competition

"For 15 years, construction got bigger and bigger. But now it's crashed. It's over, almost paralysed," says Blanca Miedes Ugarte, director of the Local Employment Observatory at the University of Huelva.

"Many people will come back to agriculture," she predicts, but stresses that this is a long-term trend. With dole payments available for up to two years, many former construction workers may bide their time.

"People with large family networks will look for other openings," explains Miedes, "but for those with no support, agriculture is the only option."

Those who do return to the farms may be in for a shock. In 2009 they face intense competition for agricultural jobs. For while Spaniards were off building new homes during Spain's construction boom, Huelva's farmers turned to foreign labour.

For this year's fruit harvests, 40,491 workers were hired from abroad, mostly Morocco and Romania. Gone are the days when the strawberry fields promised work forever for Spanish nationals.

Illegal immigrants in Spain
Illegal immigrants are being frozen out of agricultural jobs

"Back home in Romania I worked in antiques, but here I earn more - up to 900 euros a month," explains 48-year-old Ana Bordeianu from Bucharest.

"I've been coming here for six years, and it's paid for my son's education."

She shares a modest portable bedroom on the outskirts of the farm with another Romanian labourer. Next door, Moroccan workers watch pop videos on an Arabic satellite television channel in another portable cabin.

To keep his workers happy, farmer Jose Antonio Martin has created a seasonal home-from-home for his established foreign workforce.

Frozen out

"Agriculture has survived here because of the immigrants," argues Mr Martin.

"Starting in 2000, my Spanish workers went off to look for more stable jobs as the economy improved. So I hired immigrants - who are good, reliable workers. Thanks to them, there are still farm jobs to offer Spaniards today."

But, if seasonal contracts arranged through agencies in some countries have benefited certain foreign nationals, others have been frozen out.

On the outskirts of Huelva, dozens of African migrants are living in rough shelters made of sticks and sheets of plastic. In pouring rain, a group prepares a potato stew over an open fire, while laundry hangs from tree branches.

"Right now, living in Africa would be better for us than here in Spain," says Amadou Diallo, who came here from The Gambia three years ago. "Had I known what it would be like, I never would have come."

Too many workers

They turned up here hoping for casual labour in the strawberry harvest. Every morning they walk 4km (two-and-a-half miles) into town in search of work. But few arrived in Spain legally, and with farmers suddenly spoilt for choice, even cash-in-hand work is proving impossible to come by.

"The famers always start by asking whether you have papers," explains Amadou. "Of course we have to say we don't and that's it - they never want to talk to you again."

Local officials acknowledge that the labour market is ominously crowded.

"With the lay-offs from construction it will be very difficult for the local economy to absorb all these people," admits a rueful Ricardo Panzuela, from the regional government's employment service.

"Some will have to look in other regions or countries, others will have to retrain to work in tourism or services. But we've never known things to be this bad."

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SEE ALSO
Spain's economy enters recession
28 Jan 09 |  Business
Spain jobless hits 12-year high
08 Jan 09 |  Business

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