Murcia, 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.