A return to the land in Spain
By Susana Vera
The silence of a sleepy town and the flickering light of the street lamps greet Jorge Ibanez as he leaves his home before the crack of dawn in Pozo Estrecho, in the southeastern Spanish region of Cartagena, Murcia. With his baseball hat on and a cooler in his hand, he approaches a couple of men on a corner. They exchange timid hellos and engage in conversation as they wait for the car that will drive them to a potato field ready to be harvested.
Ibanez is a 20-year-old Spanish day laborer. A pair of rotten gloves and his baseball hat are his work uniform, a group of Moroccan men his work companions. Together they set out every morning to collect thousands of pounds of potatoes that will end up in the kitchens of northern Europe.
Different fields every day, but always the same sight: row after row of round yellow potatoes waiting to be picked up. Tractors work at night unearthing the tubers so that the day laborers can start collecting them as soon as the sun rises. Extreme heat is not good for potatoes, so the workers have to rush to finish before midday, when the sun is at its peak and the heat starts becoming unbearable, both for them and the spuds.
Ibanez’s hands have gotten used to moving fast. His back has also learnt to bend without breaking. Potatoes fly from the ground into his basket and then into 1,250 kilo (2,755 pound) potato sacks in no time at all. But when he sees the first truck approaching the field he knows it’s time for a cigarette. Other than picking potatoes like the rest of the crew, he’s also responsible for helping load the sacks onto the trucks. His youth and the fact that he’s a Spaniard give him the opportunity to do this slightly less taxing job. But he won’t leave the field until the last truck does, long after his working companions.
Ibanez quit school at the age of 16 to help pay the bills at home. He got a job in construction for a few months and went on to work for a truck company and a grocery store before returning to school to complete his secondary education. “I thought I would find a better job after getting my degree, but that didn’t happen. I couldn’t find anything, literally,” Ibanez says. Two months ago he decided to become a day laborer. “I know for sure this is not what I want to do for the rest of my life, but this is all I can find now,” he said.
Even though he was born and raised in an area rooted in agriculture, the thought of working the fields for a living never crossed Ibanez’s mind. But the severity of the crisis and the lack of job prospects in a country with one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the Eurozone, well beyond 50 percent, has forced him and others to reluctantly accept the kind of job that only immigrants would take during Spain’s economic boom of the 90s. A study by the Coordinator of Organisations of Farmers and Ranchers (COAG) shows that the number of young Spaniards asking for guidance to join the agricultural and livestock sector last year increased by 79 percent compared to the average of the previous five years.
But Spaniards like Ibanez are still a rare sight on the fields of Cartagena, Murcia, even if the trend is starting to change. “This job is incredibly strenuous. Many locals complain that the foreign laborers are responsible for dropping the wages because they are willing to work at very low prices. But the truth is that most Spaniards don’t want to do this type of work. We do it because we have no other choice,” Ibanez says.
Mustapha El-Mezroui didn’t feel like he had any other choice either when he decided to leave his native Morocco for Spain on a makeshift boat in the mid-90s. The lack of prospects in his own country as well as news of the incipient economic boom in Spain convinced him to look for a better future here. But homelessness and hunger was all he found when he first arrived. “I was forced to dig through trash to find food that other people discarded. Once I came across a leg of ham in the trash with some meat in it and I ate it. I was starved, what else could I do?” said El-Mezroui, a practicing Muslim, as he looked up at the sky in the modest home he shares with his wife and three-year-old son at the farm where he works outside La Puebla, Cartagena.
Like Ibanez, El-Mezroui’s days start before the crack of dawn. After a decade of working for Spanish potato farmer Santiago Perez as a keeper and farm hand his body has gotten used to waking up naturally, no alarm clocks needed. His wife Mahjouba gets up with him most mornings to prepare his coffee and kisses him goodbye before returning to their bed.
The morning light breaks by the time El-Mezroui gets to the field. Two crews of day laborers and endless rows of potatoes await him. As the workers pour the contents of their baskets into the potato sacks, El-Mezroui checks that no good potatoes are left behind and closes the sacks before helping load them onto the trucks that will take this back-breaking cargo to Belgium and the Netherlands.
El-Mezroui knows potatoes almost as well as his employer, Santiago Perez. He began picking them at the end of the 90s as the demand for manpower in the fields of Cartagena grew, with traditional family farming in the region giving way to an agricultural industry with its production destined for European markets.
This transformation took place in the midst of Spain’s housing bubble, when many young Spaniards from the area were quitting school to work in the construction sector, where the pay was far better. “It’s very difficult to find a Spaniard willing to work on the field. Harvesting potatoes is extremely tough. Even now, with so many Spaniards unemployed, you barely run into anyone who’s willing to do this kind of job,” Spanish farmer Santiago Perez says.
El-Mezroui, like many other immigrants from Morocco and Ecuador, took the jobs no Spanish national seemed to want. He was an able, single man, willing to work from sunup to sundown to earn his keep. And so the fields became the basis of his living.
And they still are. Other than supervising the day laborers, he also does maintenance work at Perez’s farm, secures the fences around the property and keeps watch for thieves.
“I work hard here, but it pays off. Now I can provide for my family, there are many people who can’t do that these days in Spain,” El-Mezroui says.