Morocco, Spain Conflict Traps 12,600 Seasonal Workers

The diplomatic rift between Morocco and Spain is affecting other much less visible, unrelated issues, that are key to the relationship between both countries.

One of these issues is the return of the more than 12,600 Moroccan seasonal workers who participated in the berry campaign in the province of Huelva.

Workers should have started to return the previous Monday, according to the phased return plan presented by the main Huelva cooperatives to the Moroccan authorities.

This happening as South Africa’s agricultural exports this 2021 could exceed last year’s $10.2 billion (R140.2 bln) as there have been large production volumes of various crops and fruits -as well as a sound output in the wool industry.

Chief Economist, Wandile Sihlobo, from the Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz) says the country’s agricultural imports increased marginally by four percent year-on-year to $1.6 billion in the first quarter.

He said that the agricultural sector had a good start to 2021, with favourable rainfall supporting crop yields. According to him, this was the second consecutive season of strong performance for the sector after 2020 saw bumper harvests and the second-largest export earnings on record of $10.2 blllion.

With 2021 set to present even larger yields than 2020 for major field crops, horticulture and the wine industry, Agbiz believes that exports could surpass last year’s levels.

In the first quarter of this year, the top exportable products included fresh grapes, maize, fresh plums, fresh pears and fresh apples. The chamber expected these products to dominate the export list throughout the year, as the production promised to exceed last year’s levels.

The Citrus Growers’ Association recently projected that the South African citrus industry would probably break all previous export season records, with an estimated 159 million cartons in 2021, from 146 million cartons in 2020.

However, Morocco has kept its borders closed since March of last year so the seasonal workers can’t go back to their country without their government’s authorisation; a fact that worries Interfresa, Freshuelva, and UPA, the three agricultural organizations that coordinate the hiring of temporary workers.

Strawberry businessmen had planned to charter two boats a week during the first two weeks of June and a third boat starting the third week of the month. Nearly 800 women would travel on each ferry and the return would be concluded in mid-July. The system is similar to the one used between December and March to bring the almost 13,000 workers from Morocco to Spain.

The spokespersons for Interfresa and Freshuelva – responsible for the contracts of more than 90% of this contingent – trust that the impasse will be solved. They also said that the experience of last year had prepared them to accommodate these women if they had to stay longer in the country.

Manuel Piedra, Secretary of Mobility and Migration of the agricultural union UPA Andalucia, is more pessimistic and blunt. “There aren’t 7,000 women this year, there are 12,600 women”, he stated.

Piedra hopes that the Moroccan Government will relax restrictions and open its borders on June 10, which would allow resuming the Strait’s normal travel conditions and let the temporary women return to Morocco on the ferries that leave from Tarifa and Algeciras, but there are no guarantees this will happen.

Sources from the Secretary of State for Migration maintain that no woman will be left in an irregular situation. The first permits expire at the end of summer.

Last year, Morocco’s refusal to open its borders for its workers was on the verge of causing a humanitarian crisis, since the 7,000 women who arrived in Spain before the health emergency broke out had to remain in Huelva, without work and spending a good part of the income they had obtained during the season.


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