Who feeds us in troubled times?

By Soledad Castillero Quesada, social anthropologist

Hands we cannot see, names we do not know

Comer: to eat, Spanish, derived from the Latin comedere

Etymologically, the prefix com suggests that we should not eat alone. In any language, the verb “to eat” has something of a humanising effect, because human beings cannot exist without eating. The verb expresses an automatic, instinctive action: eating, after all, meets a biological need, yet this need is also bound up in a set of social and cultural aspects that determine what we eat, with whom, when and how much, where our food comes from, and much more besides. Food, and thus the associated verb and act of eating, must be a universal right. In a world that produces more than enough food to nourish its entire population, what could possibly be the problem with this?

It is no easy task to analyse the factors that give rise to or, more accurately, generate hunger, since hunger is also the product of the geopolitical rationales governing the way in which societies function and are structured. While its causes are diverse and complex, they all have the same root: the establishment of a food market guided solely by the idea that ever more food must be produced at an ever lower cost: unlimited production for unlimited sales. We could go into great detail on this point, highlighting delocalised production, precarious working conditions, appropriation, use and abuse of natural resources, excessive exports, spiralling costs for basic products due to external demand for them, and so on and so forth.

This globalised food market enables those of us living in rich societies to access food from every corner of the planet, thus we can revel in ethnic cuisine or delude ourselves that our culinary creations are representative of world cuisine. Yet whether we go to bed with full or empty stomachs is determined by something as arbitrary as the place we happen to live.

But what happens when the scenario we have come to accept as normal is threatened? The COVID-19 crisis has turned our society on its head. The resulting health emergency, among other things, has opened our eyes to a veritable pandemic of inequality requiring urgent action – a situation that had become so natural that we had become inured to its implications. We need only think of the conditions in which food is produced to sustain the global food market discussed here.

In the past few days, one of the issues receiving considerable media attention has been the lack of labour to take in seasonal crops, which are typically harvested by people brought in from different countries for that purpose. Delocalisation of the workforce is part of the formula governing modern food production, which seeks to minimise costs in order to maximise profits. This approach translates into a loss of labour and social rights.

To illustrate this, I will focus on the situation in Andalusia, where fruit and vegetable production, driven by exports, has become a key sector of the economy and has employed droves of migrant workers for several decades.

The case of Huelva

Food production in Andalusia is still seasonal in many sectors. I say “still” because the food market has also sought to do away with seasons and instead produce food constantly, regardless of the practices or resources required. Nevertheless, there are still products that are bound to the cycle of the seasons. I have chosen to focus on three groups of workers employed to harvest berries, since the berry season (which runs from late February to June) is currently in full swing.

The berry sector has made the headlines on multiple occasions due to the conditions endured by the Moroccan women who come to Spain for the harvest and the original contractual conditions imposed upon them, specifically the clause stipulating that they must return to their country once the season is over. For all that this system may be dressed up as a form of orderly migration or a means of assistance from one country to its neighbour, it entails a curtailment of free movement rights, boiling down to the direct implication that the women’s presence in Spain is only tolerated if they are there for a given purpose and a set period, after which they are turned out of the country and banned from being there. So we treat people humanely on a purely temporary basis, for a purely commercial purpose – what does that say about us as a society?

Since the state of emergency was declared, the chief concern seems to be that these women’s jobs have been left unoccupied in the middle of the harvest season. At no point has anyone stopped to ask where these women are, how they are doing or how they have been able to support themselves given that they have been unable to come to Spain.

And they are far from the only group affected. At harvest time, local people from villages and towns in the province of Huelva also flock to the fields to work, making the journey each day in shared vehicles. However, the COVID-19 crisis has made car-sharing impossible, so many of these people have been forced to remain at home: while they do have jobs, they have no way of getting to them.

A third group consists of people who have jobs and can travel to them, but cannot safely stay at home after work because they live in shacks made of plastic and wood that do not even have a water supply.

We are told that we can combat this health emergency by washing our hands, staying at home and working to keep up essential activities (in this case, food production), but if we have no water, lack proper housing or cannot get to our workplaces because we have no appropriate means of transportation, what are we to do? Does anyone think about all of this? Where are the people who cannot get to work? This pandemic of indifference is nothing new.

Groups like Jornaleras de Huelva en Lucha, Colectivo de Trabajadores Africanos and SAT are acting as liaison points to draw attention to these concerns amid the COVID-19 crisis. The very day that the lockdown was announced, a demonstration, called by the Lepe branch of Colectivo de Trabajadores Africanos, had been due to take place. Its object? To demand dignified housing. Long before the lockdown forced us all to stay in our homes, these workers were condemning the fact that they lacked decent homes. Yet in spite of this, boxes of strawberries are still piled high in local shops and supermarkets and the berry sector boasted record sales of €719 million in 2019, up 8.3% on the previous year.

The ‘problem’: a lack of labour

The market does not care about how all these people came to Spain for the seasonal harvest (not just from Morocco, but also from Bulgaria, Romania and other countries), nor about the conditions they came under, nor even about the conditions in which they work each day. The market does not care about whether they have water to wash their hands, gloves and masks or even a proper toilet, nor about how they can keep a safe distance, nor about the alternatives available to people who cannot travel to work. All the market cares about is what will happen if these jobs are left undone. In other words, a few businessmen are wondering how they will get their slice of the pie if this year’s harvest stays in the fields.

Many of us had hoped that this might be an opportunity to raise questions about the state of the sector and the living conditions endured by hundreds of people in our beloved Andalusia, but the pressing desire not to slow down production has won out. There has been a general failure to understand that this is not a time of abundance, but a time of transformation. If we are to set an example and make the food production chain more humane, our priority should be regularising the status of people working in food production and ensuring that they have decent living conditions – that would give us something to applaud at our tables each day! If we were to do this, though, it would be impossible to maintain the same production figures. As Ana Pinto, a day labourer and activist with the collective Jornaleras de Huelva en Lucha, said in one of our many conversations, dignified working conditions seem to be incompatible with maximum productivity:

“In the strawberry fields, people have been fired, yelled at or sent home because they got up for a minute to blow their noses. All anyone cares about is maximum production, no matter what it takes. All they want to do is produce more and more and more. And then there are the rules – always more and more rules. Before, there was a lot of camaraderie. We had a laugh together because there were no quotas to reach, they didn’t threaten to fire you if you didn’t bring in enough kilos. There might have been lists, but there wasn’t the kind of competition you see in the fields these days, where everyone’s struggling not to fall behind so they don’t lose their jobs.”


The ‘solution’: a frankly offensive royal decree

The Council of Ministers approved a royal decree to urgently secure the required workforce in the aim, as they put it, of avoiding food shortages and surging prices in the midst of a pandemic. Yet rather than addressing the specific conditions encountered in each area, the royal decree merely sets out a series of general guidelines and measures, further failing to account for the different types of work done in the field.

The royal decree extends work permits held by people whose contracts are due to expire between the time that the state of emergency was declared and 30 June, highlighting that these workers are sorely needed and that their work permits are not being extended out of sheer altruism.

Conversely, asylum seekers who have been in Spain for less than six months and do not have work permits will not be allowed to work, nor will people whose immigration status depends on the outcome of some bureaucratic procedure: in other words, there will be no opportunities for people who lack the requisite permits and papers. Thus the royal decree neglects the most vulnerable members of our society – after all, it is well known that many people in Andalusia lack work permits and thus employment contracts. In the current crisis, this could have been an opportunity to regularise the status of these people. A range of social organisations, including farmers’ associations, have been calling for such a measure, but in vain.

As if this were not enough, the work permit extensions come with the condition that workers’ places of residence must be close to their workplaces so that they need not make harmful journeys. Yet many workers’ places of residence are themselves harmful and offer them no protection from this pandemic. The royal decree says nothing about this, nor does it guarantee decent housing for those workers who need it.

For a more humane production chain

If the idea of making the production chain more humane, in terms of care, were to be debated seriously, then the primary focus should surely be the welfare of the people bringing in the crops and those people’s needs. As a society, we must rethink our priorities.

What does it matter that the berry sector made record sales of over €700 million in 2019 if a young man burns to death in a fire in the shanty town where he snatches a few hours’ rest between shifts in the fields? How much do profits and productivity really count when, as Ana Pinto reports, hygiene measures prevent workers from carrying a bottle of water in the carts they use to collect produce even as they labour in greenhouses where temperatures exceed 40 °C?

There can be no doubt that, in the words of the collective Carro de Combate, now more than ever consuming is a political act. And there can be no doubt that we are all responsible for ensuring, urgently and without delay, that the current debate takes another turn. If we do not, then we will not be saving anything, much less stopping this pandemic together.

This article is how we applaud the workers who bring in the harvest. We must not forget that their hands are the most precious fruit of all.