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Immigrant Employment in Spanish Farming: The Case of the Girona Fruit Sector -- Dr. Cristóbal Mendoza


Dr. Cristóbal Mendoza

Dpto. de Estudios de Población

El Colegio de la Frontera Norte

Tijuana, México

Different from immigrant inflows into central and northern Europe in the 50s and 60s, farming is nowadays a key immigrant sector in Europe. Over-representation of non-European workers in farming can even be noticed in those countries which were traditionnally labour senders, such as Spain. To give an example, farming only provides jobs for 9% of the Spanish labour force, but to around 30% of legally-resident African immigrants (which constitute the bulk of new immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s). Moreover current Spanish quota procedures which channel new labour immigrants into specific occupations reserve a third of new permits for farm workers (Mendoza, 2000). Current research on immigration into Spain has mainly focused on identifying the dominant characteristics of immigrant workers (e.g. nationality, year of arrival, legal status), but why immigrants have become relevant for specific economic sectors or occupations in Spain has been little researched.

This paper revolves around immigrant employment in Mediterranean Spanish agriculture. It has been argued that Spanish farming has experienced a similar evolution to other countries in Western Europe, but later on in time (Etxezarreta and Viladomiu, 1997; Gómez and González, 1997). This delay has marked the sector whose current productivities in terms of both output per ha. and per worker lag behind the rest of the European Union countries, with the exception of Portugal, Greece and to a lesser extent Italy (see Commission of the European Communities. annual). It was not until the 1960s due to more open policies under the Franco regime and the signature of collaborative agreements with the European Union, the country's agriculture experienced large mechanisation projects (as reaction of big losses in the number of agricultural workers) and crop intensification, with cereals being increasingly substituted by fruit and vegetable production (Cruz Villalón, 1993; Pérez Yruela, 1995). Apart from fierce competition for workers from other sectors, farming suffered from competition for land on coastal areas in the 1960s, with tourism activities expanding at farm expenses. Even these large scale changes, small to medium-sized family farming is still dominant in Mediterranean Spain (Etxezarreta et al., 1995).

In this context of family businesses, this paper concentrates on African-born immigrant involvement in the Girona fruit sector. Situated in the north east of the Iberian Peninsula, the Catalan province of Girona saw its foreign residents pass from 0.8% of the population in 1981 to 3.3% in 1995 (almost twice the Spanish average). One explanation for this rapid growth is the strength of the Girona economy. Thus, the province had the seventh highest per capita provincial income in 1973 but the second highest in 1995 (Banco Bilbao Vizcaya, biannual). Associated with this, the province has seen rapid population growth, with an almost threefold increase from 1960 to 1996. This resulted largely from in-migration from the rest of Spain (Valenzuela, 1991), although Girona has always attracted a non-Spanish population, traditionally from central and northern Europe. Yet the European share of the foreign population fell as African labour inflows increased in the 1980s and 1990s. As Gozálvez Pérez (1995) has pointed out, Girona has a notable potential for the employment of foreign labour, as it has a large tourism-oriented coastal zone, which is associated with a large transient population, while the economic base of the province is diversified. Indicative of this, Girona has a more balanced distribution of non-EU workers across its economic sectors than most Spanish provinces (Mendoza, 1998).

These background characteristics were a key reason for selecting Girona for the questionnaire surveys that were undertaken here, for the diversified, dynamic nature of the Girona economy provided a context in which it should be relatively easy for African workers to change employment. As such, the role (and likely continued role) that agriculture plays in African labour market trajectories can be established in a setting in which African workers have other possible job openings. To provide insight on actual patterns of African employment, interviews were conducted with 20 key local informants, 32 employers and 151 African workers (87 from Morocco and 64 from The Gambia or Senegal). The survey on African employees carried out for this project was conducted between July and December 1995. Interviews were conducted in eight municipalities, with two municipalities selected to reflect each of four different type of local employment structure. These four categories highlighted places with a bias in their employment structure towards agriculture, toward service industries (broadly defined), toward tourism and where there was a strong manufacturing sector presence. It should be acknowledged that there were difficulties identifying African workers. From the outset it was recognized that some Africans might be employed illegally (although the extent of this is commonly exaggerated; Mendoza, 1998), so the sampling procedure used was snowballing. This started with names provided by organisations for African workers, local social service agencies, trade unions, and so on (in some cases municipal governments provided lists taken from local registration information, although others would or could not provide such lists). Interviewed workers from these lists provided contacts with other African workers living locally. With interviews also conducted with 20 local key informants (government officials, social service workers, trade union officials and employers organizations), as well as with 32 employers, checks were run against how far the interviewed group reflected differences in African populations across municipalities (registration, Padrón Municipal de Habitantes and census information also helped in this regard). This indicated that the interviewed group provided a reasonable reflection of the variety and character of local African employment. To offer insights on how this might vary across economic sectors, interviews were conducted in municipalities with different employment structures.

This paper is structured in two parts. The first part focuses on the characteristics of African immigrant in Girona farming. Here it is seen the broad scale of immigrant employment in the province, as well as showing casualisation and precariousness of African employment. The second part takes a historical perspective and focuses on the process of substitution of Spariards by immigrant workers in Girona fields. This part also tackles the issues on workers' substitution and competition.

African employment in the Girona fruit sector

As it becomes clear in my fieldwork, the characteristics of African employment in Girona farming can be summarised in five: (i) African labourers are the main labour source in Girona farming, (ii) African workers are mainly in short-term seasonal jobs, (iii) there is need for permanent immigrant workers in Girona fields, (iv) there is some openings for skilled immigrant workers and (v) great inter-sectoral mobility (in and out of farming) is not associated with upward occupational mobility for African immigrants.

Africans are the main labour source in Girona farming

Even a quick glimpse at Girona fields denotes the scope of African employment in farming. As a clear indication of the role of agriculture for African immigrants, and taking into account that my sampling universe was African immigrants (and not African farm workers) in the selected Girona localities, it was a remarkable finding that two-thirds of the sample had undertaken agricultural work at some time during their stay in Spain (99 out of 151). Moreover almost half of those interviewees entered Spanish labour markets through farming (67 out of 151), but only 38 were in the sector at their interview.

It should be also noted a wide geographical spread in African involvement in farm activities. In the different types of municipality investigated in this study (agricultural, manufacturing, service-oriented, and tourism centres), the African presence in farm work was considerably higher than the importance of this sector in local economies. Thus, in agricultural 'towns', farming gave employment to 31.3% at the 1991 Census population, but provided jobs for 52.9% of interviewed African workers. Over-representation was even more marked elsewhere, with the proportion of Africans in farming at twice the percentage in the total workforce in manufacturing towns, seven times the rate in tourism centres and 10 times the rate in 'other services' municipalities. This highlights that African employment in farming is widespread, regardless of the local economic base.


Africans mainly undertake short-term seasonal farm work

However most of the farm jobs were of seasonal nature. As an example, only 38 out of 99 who reported that they had worked in Spanish farming were doing agricultural work at their interview. Moreover, only five of the 38 interviewed Africans who were working in farming at the time of their interview had a permanent contract. Certainly this is partly due to the seasonality of farm production in Mediterranean Spain. For instance, in Girona the fruit picking season runs from July to September, after which the farm workforce is reduced, with continuing employees mainly charged with the maintenance of fields and farm buildings. Illustrative of this is the case of a tenant farmer with a 40 hectare holding (the average size for the province was 28.1 ha. in 1989; Instituto Nacional de Estadística, 1991), with 30 hectares under fruit and the other 10 under cereals. This farmer stated that he had three permanent, year-round employees (the foreman, a Spanish national, and two skilled workers, one Spanish, the other African), with a further three African workers on 'temporary contracts'. Regardless of the length of their contract, these six were employed all year round on the farm. At the end of April, five more workers were employed to eliminate bloom on trees, to encourage fruit growth. These five stayed from April until the end of October, helping with successive harvests (first peaches, then pears, and finally apples). Extra workers were employed for each of these three harvests (9-10 for the peach campaign, around 15 for pears and 25-27 for apples). In the apple season, there were about 35 employees in the farm.


This pattern of significant short-term increases in labour requirements is quite characteristic of fruit production in Spain. Thus, for the neighbouring province of Lleida, Balcells (1991) estimated that during the picking season an extra 5,000-6,000 workers are needed. This researcher suggests that about half the extra demand is met by the local population and by Spaniards from other provinces. This means that at least 2,000 temporary farm jobs are filled by foreigners. This figure of 2,000 contrasts with the 300 farm work permits that were issued to non-EU nationals for agriculture in the province in 1990.

There is need for permanent immigrant workers in Girona fields

Despite the fact that only five of 38 working in farming had a permanent contract at their interview, African immigrants are not only employed in seasonal jobs. Thus 10 of the 22 with a temporary work contract had been employed for more than a year on the same farm, regardless of the length of their current contract.


Illustrating the practices in operation, one agricultural labourer had been employed continuously on the same farm for 14 years, although he had a seasonal contract at the time he was interviewed. Roquero (1996) found a similar pattern amongst African workers in Almería greenhouses, with 'real' seasonal workers employed at harvest time, while other workers with temporary contracts were engaged for nine or 10 months on successive tasks on the same farm. Like Girona, more permanent types of employment are not synonymous with permanent hiring. To put this in context, it should be noted that, in many cases, a rolling programme of temporary contracts is illegal. In Spanish law a worker has to be contracted on a permanent basis after working for the same employer for three years. From the Girona evidence it seems that, to get around this provision, some employers sack their employees and then offer them a new work contract after a short period of time. Without changing their place of employment, other Africans work for a spell without a contract before being offered a new contract. Either way, employers claim their workers have not been employed on a permanent basis for three years.

There is some openings for skilled immigrant workers

For those working the whole year round, it was common to undertake skilled (foremen, tractor drivers), semi-skilled (pruning) and non-skilled tasks (the latter primarily during the harvest season). From employer and employee reports, it was clear that 'skilled' tasks were 'reserved' for workers employed the year round. But it is significant that the suitability of workers for farm tasks does not come from their skills prior to coming to Spain. Indeed those who were interviewed stressed that there are sharp differences between agricultural practices in Girona and in their African homeland. An oft cited example of this is that trees are not pruned in West African farming (amongst those African workers employed in farming the vast majority were from West Africa). Interviews made clear that the skilled nature of farm work undertaken in Girona was almost wholly learnt in Spain (e.g. driving a tractor, working as a foreman and pruning trees). The suitability of these workers for agricultural employment did not come from prior skills at the time of employment, but from other factors. Signifying a general sentiment amongst employers, one farmer explained that: "Africans are good workers, and are used to the hard working conditions of farming. Africans have a good physical endurance, so they put up with hard agricultural tasks". It seems that the 'skills' farmers require come largely from physical condition and an aptitude for farm work. Flexibility is also important, for interviewed employers in the construction sector made clear that farmers were not adversely disposed to 'hiring' their African employees to construction firms when farm work was slack (this was largely for labouring).

Great inter-sectoral mobility (in and out of farming) is not associated with upward occupational mobility for African immigrants

In this context, high inter-sectoral mobility are not surprising for immigrants. Significantly, just 24 of the 67 African workers who entered Spanish employment through farm work were in that sector when they were interviewed. In reality farming provides few permanently-hired jobs for Africans. For most, work in the farm sector is transient and insecure. In this context, most end up having to participate in paid activities in other economic sectors, in order to secure an income through all or most of the year. This sensitizes them to openings in other sectors, as well as making them aware that a shift out of agriculture is likely to be accompanied by higher wages. Only in a few cases did seasonally employed African labourers use the time between farm work to return to their homeland. A few interviewed Morrocans followed this practice, but this was a costly option for the 64 West Africans who were interviewed.

Set against the pattern identified in the last paragraph, it should also be noted that relocations into different economic sectors were not associated with upward occupational mobility (albeit income improvements were made). In this regard my survey displayed that 21% of those in farming did a skilled manual job, compared with just 12% in other sectors. Nor was farming worse than other sectors in providing a permanent employment base. In all, 13% of Africans employed on Girona farms had a permanent contract, which does not compare badly beside the figures of 19% for construction and 5% for the accommodation and restaurant sector (Mendoza, 1998). Yet the issue is not that agriculture is 'worse' or 'better' that other sectors, as with others, farming provides an uncertain employment base for African employees, so they are often forced to change jobs unwillingly, with unemployment or illegality often resulting. Where agriculture can be seen to be less than welcoming is in its low rates of pay, which interviewees reported would encourage a higher turnover of workers were it not for the (relative) difficulty of African workers obtaining jobs in another sector.

Immigrant and native workers in Girona labour markets

The last paragraph showed a snapshot of immigrant workers in Girona in the mid-1990s. Here the focus turns to the process through which immigrants are the dominant labour source in Girona and explores issues of competition and substitution between workers of different origin in Girona farming.

In Girona agriculture, African workers are mainly employed in intensive fruit production. Since 1960, the land area under fruit trees has expanded at the expense of cereals and other crops. This expansion occurred despite a reduction of almost 20% in utilized agricultural land between 1960 and 1993 (Insituto Nacional de Estadística, annual). But as the shift toward more intensive production occurred there was rising demand for farm labourers. As one farmer explained:

My wife and I regularly work on the farm. She's in charge of the administration, as well as cleaning the calves and milking the cows. In summer, she also picks fruit. I drive the tractor, sulphate land, prune the trees and harvest. So does the only permanent employee on the farm. He's been employed for many years with me. He's almost part of the family. My two daughters help us in summer with fruit picking. They are students at Girona University. As we replaced livestock and cereals with fruit trees, we had to hire temporary employees. Last year, for instance, we had seven workers on fixed-term contracts; one was Spanish, the rest were African. The Spanish worker was employed for the whole of the peak season [June to September]. The Africans were employed for one month or several weeks for specific tasks, like peach collection.

Employers agreed that there had been a common trend in the evolution of hiring practices on Girona farms. Initially this involved the substitution of local female workers by temporary in-migrants from Andalucía. Now workers from southern Spain are giving way to Africans. This substitution first began to occur because local (female) residents opted for jobs other than farm work. This is not surprising, perhaps, with wages in the accommodation and restaurant sector close to 90% higher than in farming (Banco Bilbao Vizcaya, biannual). If we add to this the fact that the summer is the peak season for both sectors, the link between rapid expansion in tourism and labour shortages in farming is understandable.

But this does not explain why employers regularly report that "Andalusians are not coming any more", for work temporary absences are a long-established income earning strategy in southern Spain (e.g. Mansvelt Beck, 1988). In fact, many factors have combined to weaken internal Spanish migration streams that used to fill peaks in agricultural labour demand. For one, there has been a reduction in living standard differentials across Spain (see Ferrer Regales and Calvo Miranda, 1987; Villaverde Castro, 1996). This has been associated with a new economic dynamism in (some) agricultural areas in southern Spain that were the traditional source regions for peak season farm migrants. Additionally, since 1985, agricultural employees resident in Andalucía and Extremadura have had the right to claim unemployment benefit after they work 60 days [jornadas]. Agricultural labourers in the rest of Spain are not eligible for these benefits. With Andalucía and Extremadura as the main source regions of seasonal farm labourer migration, these benefits have contributed to reducing the attractiveness of working in other parts of Spain (Bentolila, 1997). As several agricultural employers indicated, some workers from Andalucía now only want to work long enough to qualify for unemployment benefit. In this context, some farmers find that in-migrant Spanish workers are not available at all (if they can secure work in their own region) or have to keep finding new workers as the season progresses. The attraction of hiring workers from another source region is obvious in this setting.

Not surprisingly, then, today few farmers hire Andalusians. Those that do tend to have stable demand for workers across the whole season (e.g. on larger farms), so workers can be offered a long (seasonal) contract which makes 'settling' with one employer for the summer worthwhile. Additionally, these farms tend to be in inland areas, where competition for workers from the tourism sector is lower. For one farmer the decision to employ Spanish temporary in-migrants was clear: "This is a small town. There are no Africans, and locals are not prepared to take up seasonal tasks any more". Yet whenever possible, it seems, farmers turn by preference to African workers. As one employer on a medium-sized holding explained: "Last year I hired 10 Andalusians. I gave them accommodation. But they were not hard workers. Beside, Africans live in town, so I do not have to provide accommodation for them".

Whether the process of worker substitution in farming is accompanied with competition is another issue. Indeed competition for jobs looks weak in farming since labour shortages are reported in Spanish farming as soon as the late 1960s. Indeeed in his study of Basc Country, Greenwood (1976) argued that, even if real incomes were lower, young people preferred jobs in other sectors rather than in farming. This was because agriculture was thought to carry low social tones amongs the young. Rejection of farm work is also reported recently in literature (Enciso Rodríguez and Sabaté Prats, 1995; García Ramon et al., 1995). In line with it, I collected several views on this in my fieldwork. As an example, a social worker responsible for small rural municipalities in the province explained: "No one wants to work in farming. Middle-class urban values have quickly spread to the countryside. People want to be doctors, teachers, professionals, whatever - not pagesos [agricultural employers]". Along similar lines, a farming couple, who had begun to look to tourism as a primary income source, explained that this was because family farming was not going to be sustainable on their holding:

We have two children. The girl is working for the town social services. The boy is a butcher. There is no reason for us to make any major change to the farm [so they stick to cereal production]. Nobody is going to take on the farm after us. Yet rural tourism is a rock solid business in this area. Our children are happy with it.

If this view holds for would-be farming employers, it comes as no surprise that the agricultural sector is even less attractive for potential Spanish workers. Moreover labour shortages are as such than some immigrants obtain access to more skilled kind of jobs (e.g. supervising). Access to more skilled kind of jobs is more the result of lack of qualified Spanish (locals or immigrants) farm workers than consequence of immigrant worker qualifications. Indeed almost all skilled workers in my immigrant survey learned their job in Spain (and not in their countries of origin). Paradoxically enough, even if immigrants are trained in Girona farms, the bulk of skilled immigrant workers are kept under temporary contracts and paid on daily basis. This is a main difference with their Spanish counterparts in these type of jobs who have more access to permanently-hired jobs and monthly-fixed wages. In this context it is not surprising that even immigrants escape from farm work to other low-skilled jobs in Girona as they stay longer in the country (and get to know where jobs are and obtain legal residence).


Labour shortages have been prominent in Girona as soon as there was a move towads more intensive farming in the 1960s, with labour shortfalls being at first met by in-migrants and non-working local residents. Only more recently have these sources failed to meet demand, which has led to growth in African employment (Giménez Romero, 1992; Mendoza, 1998). Certainly Girona is a dynamic province which has quite distinctive labour market features (e.g. tourism activities, high diversified economy, high per capita income, low unemployment). These have in turn implications on immigrant employment.

Yet the extensive scale of immigrant employment in Mediterranean Spain, the fact that family farming is the rule for the whole Mediterranean Spain and the increase in immigrant employment across provinces as different as Girona and Almeria (whose booming greenhouse sector started in mid-1980s) point to structural factors for Spanish farming (rather to local circumstances) when explaining immigrant employment in agriculture. Moreover an analysis of work permit data by economic sector and province shows that immigrants are less likely to be found in provinces with abundant local workers (big states in southern Spain), with Portuguese immigrants (León or Badajoz) or in areas where extensive farming is dominant (central Spain, Hoggart and Mendoza, 1999). Even if my fieldwork in Girona pointed to a lack of competition amongst workers by nationality or origin, more research is needed in other particular farm regions to explore how far competition (or lack of competition) between workers occurs. For instance, after social unrest for several days after racist outbreaks in El Ejido, Almería, farmers substituted the 'troublesome' Moroccans with Eastern Europeans (El País, 7-12 February 2000). This is to say that farmers may decide to hire other labour sources (rathen than African immigrants or immigrants) by putting up wages, for instance, if they consider it favourable for their interests. What is clear is that immigrants provide Spanish farming with an alternative source of abundant, flexible and low-paid labour which may be of great help for the survival of many low-productivity family holdings. On the other hand a strategy based on the maintenance of competitiveness through low-wages may not bring long-term benefits for Spanish agriculture. Indeed a strategy that limits investment in productive capacity improvement, but relies on a cheap labour solution, does not hold out much prospect of sustaining competitiveness in the long-term. Whether on account of low wages scales or much greater capital allocations to farm improvements (plus superior land fertility and more favourable farm and field structures), other nations are likely to be able to offer much cheaper products in the longer term. In this context, the present-day responses of Spanish farmers to labour shortages are likely to be seen as storing up problems for the future competitiveness of Spanish farming.


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